Chelsea Wolfe’s 2011 LP Ἀποκάλυψις is a record that is impossible to pigeonhole. The masterful record travels through a vast range of sounds; from goth rock, to trip hop, to folk, to dark ambient. Yet, amidst the sonic variety lies a spirit that unifies these differing sounds into a singular work of art. That spirit is encapsulated in the album title. Most English speakers will quickly associate the term “Apocalypse” with violence, annihilation and destruction. However, the original Greek term has additional implications of revelation, uncovering and disclosure. The two connotations can be unified into a single idea: destruction is a necessary step on the pathway toward insight and understanding. Said otherwise – pain is beauty.
That’s exactly how Wolfe puts it on her latest album, Pain is Beauty, a record that continues to explore the themes of its predecessor while also venturing into a new spectrum of sounds. Pain is Beauty sees Wolfe more thoroughly engaged with electronics. The opener, “Feral Love,” is a feverish, predatory piece that is driven doomy harpsichord and thunderous electro drum beats. “House of Metal” is gentle and melancholic, with dreamy, looped drum patterns accompanied by strings and xylophone. Other tracks offer less sharply defined rhythms and are instead grounded in swollen, orchestral synths that convey a heavy yet gorgeous sense of tragedy (i.e. “Sick” and “Reins”). Regardless of the tone or tempo, the arrangements are excellent. There are just the right number of subtle nuances and textures: enough to keep the music dynamic, but not so many that the sound becomes cluttered.
Chelsea Wolfe’s “We Hit A Wall”
While electronically driven tracks make up the bulk of Pain is Beauty, Wolfe is in form just as much within the rock tracks. “We Hit a Wall” offers thunderous drumming and guitars that dances the line between majesty and foreboding. “Destruction Makes the World Brighter” is almost sarcastically light and playful, with twangy country rock lead guitar and bubby vocal lines, all of which are betrayed by brief forays into minor chords and spooky chanting. The piano ballad “The Waves Have Come” shows Wolfe’s ability to manage a more extensive composition as she gently builds a from a small, somber minor chord progression toward an absolutely cathartic apex of piano and strings over eight and half minutes.
For all the variety offered on Pain is Beauty the one constant is the raw power of Wolfe’s vocals. Despite Wolfe’s predilection for reverb and vocal effects, it never feels as if there’s any distance between her voice and the listener. This is naked music – the feelings are right there, direct and unfiltered. Wolfe’s voice channels the essence of the lyrics and brings them to life. On “Feral Love” she sounds like a predator fully entranced in the hunt as she coldly howls, “Your eyes are black like an animal.” For as foreboding as she sounds on “Feral Love,” she sounds equally helpless on the staggering ballad, “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone.” There, Wolfe takes on the persona of a ghost who is powerlessly trapped between life and death by her love for another (or perhaps life itself). “I carry a heaviness like a mountain,” laments the ghost with an almost unbearable sense of tragedy, “it forces me to remain alive and ugly.” During the final stanza the mood undergoes a slight but profound shift. Drums kick in, the lyrics shift from first-person to third-person and Wolfe’s vocals reach a paradoxical beauty in which they seem to transcend pain while still remaining thoroughly engrossed in pain – a perfect sonic reflection of the lyrics, which convey an understanding that one’s life is only truly appreciated after it has passed. “They’ll clap when you die/ they’ll love you when you’re dead/ and they’ll understand/ and you’ll be forgiven then.”
Pain is Beauty reaffirms what Ἀποκάλυψις already demonstrated: Chelsea Wolfe is one of the most compelling and poignant songwriters of the moment. Wolfe’s music is raw and open, and clearly she gives a lot of herself on her records. Yet, unlike many artists who wear their heart on their sleeve, Wolfe’s personality never stands in the way of the music. Ultimately what is expressed are not feelings and experiences unique to one individual, but rather fundamental dimensions of the human condition as communicated by one person. Thus, this is music that demands a lot of the listener. It’s a dark and dreary album that can at times feel hopeless in its tragedy. Yet, it’s from out of the darkest of nights that the light of beauty is most radiant.
Written by Jael Reboh
OurVinyl | Contributor