Photo: John Crawford

Chelsea Wolfe took to the woods years ago. Wolfe moved back to Northern California, where she was raised, in 2015, settling into an isolated house in the mountains surrounded by hushed, misty redwood groves (and a local biker bar). But, she says, she didn’t spend much time there until this past year, when she wrote Birth Of Violence at home as “a way to settle in and really get to know the house and get to know this area.” This arc is reflected in Wolfe’s music: Her last two albums, 2015’s Abyss and 2017’s Hiss Spun, were written during periods of intense touring, and both express an experimental restlessness that saw Wolfe toying with—and, on the latter album, fully embracing—sludgy doom metal. But with her return to the land comes a return to Wolfe’s folkier side on Birth Of Violence, an album that rides in on a thunderous cloud of pagan bombast and departs with the soothing natural sound of a rainstorm.

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Opening track “The Mother Road” conjures up ecstatic images of worshippers in heavy wool cloaks, torches in hand as they solemnly proceed up a sacred mountain to worship ancient gods. But Wolfe has also said that the song was inspired by Route 66, the blacktop artery that has given lifeblood to all-American rebels and dreamers since Jack Kerouac and friends went On The Road. That dichotomy speaks both to the album’s lyrics—which reference the divine feminine and Led Zeppelin alike—and its blend of atmospheric folk and engine-revving hard rock. Wolfe’s mother goddess wears black leather and chunky silver rings, riding her motorcycle down the winding highways of the American imagination.

Of the album’s twin musical modes, however, ethereal folk is by far the more dominant; “Deranged For Rock & Roll” is the only song on the record that really leans in to electric chaos, and even that is the heavy metal icing on a doom-folk cake. Far more indicative of the album as a whole is “American Darkness,” which shuffles in with loose, gloomy acoustic strumming that’s gradually layered with ethereal sound that peaks like waves crashing against jagged rocks by the song’s end. This same basic structure carries over to title track “Birth Of Violence” and “Be All Things,” which takes a more orchestral approach to the same basic, layered sound. None of these songs have the dynamic range of “The Mother Road,” however, and weave together like so many gossamer spiderwebs into a pretty, but indistinguishable, haze.

This is especially true of the album’s sluggish middle section, which, while it certainly has its moments of transcendence—particularly in Wolfe’s vocals, alternately ghostly and resonant—is even looser than the three-song run that precedes it. Birth Of Violence picks up in its final stretch, channeling White Chalk-era PJ Harvey on the delicate, breathy “Little Grave” and plunging a cold sword of brittle metallic noise into the hypnotic “Preface To A Dream Play” before blending gut-rumbling low notes and Wolfe’s lonesome howls on de facto closer “Highway.” But with melodies that are stretched thin and simplistic lyrics that feel even more so next to the sophisticated arrangements, Birth Of Violence’s dark beauty is like standing outside watching the stars in winter: stark, beautiful, and a little numbing.