As something of a newcomer to Chelsea Wolfe’s work, having discovered her through her latest album, and having since heard many positive comments on her live performances, I was eager to witness one for myself, and to experience the impact of the tracks from Abyss in person.
There’s not a lot to say about support act Masakichi: for all the layered, atmospheric guitar work and enticing intros, they fail to really present anything beyond mediocre – and by design, commercial – folk-tinged rock. Halfway through the fourth song, they amped it up and hinted that they’re capable of much more, but on the strength of this outing, they prefer to play it safe and likely have an eye on the mass market with their Cranberries meets Warpaint stylings, the hints of ethereal celtic-folk seemingly an affectation rather than a blood-deep influence.
I find myself wondering while waiting for the main event if the guy and girl to my left are a couple or brother and sister. The place is packing out fast now, and a hipster couple bustle their way to the front and stand next to me. He has the obligatory beard and slicked-back short back and sides, his denim jacket sleeves rolled just so to reveal the cuff of his plaid shirt, turned up to reveal the sleeve tattoo which encroached to the lower reaches of his wrist; her vest top displaying a similar array of tattoos, plus designs on her thumb and the back of her hand, weighted with chunky rings. There were a fair few such clones in the crowd, although it was pleasing to observe a fairly broad demographic more generally.
The regular PA mix gives way to some dramatic choral and orchestral music, building the drama nicely before bang on nine-thirty, the backing band, led by drummer Dylan Fujioka, walked onto the dimly-lit stage. Striking up and unleashing a thunderous sound, it’s a mighty intro as Chelsea Wolfe herself appears to head the sonic demolition of Abyss’ opener, ‘Carrion Flowers’. Immersed in a deep smog of gut-churning bass violent bursts of noise, I’m reminded of Swans and Cranes: the jarring force of the instrumentation coupled with Chelsea’s voice, which reaches the parts other vocalists don’t even know exist, combine to create an experience that’s spine-chilling.
Chelsea is an incredible, towering presence, and not just physically (she is tall, and wears four-inch heels, and twists her ankles in some crazy contortions while playing the guitar). Her voice is something else, barely of this world. And when she ditches the guitar in favour of a pair of maracas and stalks the stage dangerously, as she does during the languorous ‘House of Metal’, it’s utterly compelling. Yet when she speaks between songs – which she does only very rarely – she’s barely audible.
That the set draws heavily on Abyss is something I’m certainly not about to complain about. ‘We Hit A Wall’ is noteworthy for some mammoth drumming, which dominates the sound over screeds of overloading guitar bursts. The tumultuous percussion counterpoints beautiful, soaring dramatics of Chelsea’s vocals again on ‘Maw’, perhaps the closest thing to a pop song in the set. That said, ‘Iron Moon’ is one of the most magnificently doomy epics you’re likely to hear. The quiet / loud dynamic still works like nothing else when well executed, and as she belts out the colossal chorus, I melt.
It’s all about the contrasts, of course: to paraphrase from a previous album title, Chelsea and her band channel beauty and pain, and moreover, the beauty in pain. The lighting is minimal, and in terms of performance, there isn’t much to see: and yet as a show, it’s utterly transfixing. It’s not only Chelsea herself, but her band: they’re not simply playing the songs, but channelling everything that the songs contain.
Zola Jesus would also stand as a fitting comparison in some respects. ‘After the Fall’ explodes in a deluge of overdriven bass, and ‘Survive’ whips up a maelstrom of utterly devastating proportions. Again and again, Fujioka’s drumming stands out, the dynamism of his playing equalled by his force. ‘Colour of Blood’ runs thick with a dense, sludgy bass, again standing as the perfect contrast with Wolfe’s hauntingly evocative vocals.
The encore concludes with the dolorous ‘Pale on Pale’ from 2011’s Apokalypsis, and it’s truly hypnotic. Chelsea leaves the stage while the rest of the band wring the final squalls of feedback from their instruments amidst a crashing thrash of cymbals. The rapturous applause is well deserved.
Some nights everything comes together. In a venue that’s not only my favourite my miles, but ones that’s received manifold plaudits and is loved by all who attend, not to mention the bands who play there, an outstanding artist played an outstanding set to a respectful and abundantly appreciative – and diverse – audience, with immaculate sound in every corner of the venue. It doesn’t get much better than this.