From the first time I heard Chelsea Wolfe‘s music, it was pretty clear that she wasn’t like most other singer-songwriters. It isn’t often you hear a Burzum cover, never mind from an artist outside of the usual extreme metal sphere. Digging a little further, Wolfe’s second album, released last year, was a striking howl from the darkness. Kinda folk music in the loosest sense, but pitch-dark, and with a crackling atmosphere that always sounded like it was about to break, but never quite did.
But before I, and my gig-going companions, were able to enjoy her set, we had a support band to get through. Who were, it has to be said, frighteningly young-looking. A band called Old Forest, three sullen-looking teenagers who had clearly done their homework on their influences, which mainly appeared to be bone-dry metal and Melvins. Oh yes, this was scuzzy, sludgy rock, rarely played fast, but with an interesting vocal trick – a small megaphone taped to the microphone, which the vocalist used for every song. If it was a way to get around his actual voice not fitting the music, good plan – and a good awareness of weaknesses. A little more enthusiasm in their music onstage might not have gone amiss, but otherwise, it was impressive for a band so young.
The problem with small venues such as this, though, is that there can be no grand entrance. So Chelsea and her band got set-up onstage, made the necessary adjustments, and pretty much got on with it. But even from such a low-key start, as soon as the music began to crank up, a hush descended on the crowd and pretty much, the crowd were totally engrossed by what came from the stage all the way through. Aside from a tiny handful of people – I mean, really, folks. If you are coming to a gig, do the performers a favour and SHUT THE FUCK UP. We aren’t there to hear your conversations, we have paid to see the performance.
Towards The Forest, Towards The Sea
Advice and Vices
Tracks (Tall Bodies)
Pale on Pale
And anyway, what a performance. Much of the recent album was aired, with only one from her debut (standout Advice and Vices). This split made sense, actually – the new album is more rounded, and a better evolution of her sound. And while her crackly, distorted folk can sound somewhat thin on record at points, here it was amped up loud, but the star of the show all the way was Chelsea and her voice.
Clever use of vocal loops and delays meant that at points there were three or four Chelsea Wolfes singing, and as her vocals often are wordless, or very close to it, it at points looked and sounded like a wraith was on stage, an impression exacerbated by her all-black clothing, jet black hair and pale skin, under bright, hot light. And all of this made some of the songs utterly extraordinary – the one uptempo song in the set, Demons, bulldozed forward, the charge led by Chelsea’s voice, while the slow, near-seductive crawl of Tracks (Tall Bodies) had a very different vibe. During The Wasteland, her wailing voice, in conjunction with the electronic beats, made her sound very much like Beth Gibbons, but even more despairing.
We even got a nod to the future, too, with two new tracks of such unbearable tension, suggesting that the new album when it comes may well be another evolution of the sound. One was underpinned by a heavy, slow-paced electronic beat, but the second was dominated by an urgent, ever-building drum beat that sounded not unlike the closing moments of Swans’ A Hanging, stretched out over five minutes. There was no release, just a stop dead.
There was one last treat in store after the short, intense set – a quite staggering encore composed simply of Pale on Pale, a song amazing enough on record, but here was transformed into a trancelike epic, the rhythm carried forward once again by her ghostly voice, the whole band lost in the power of the song, before ending suddenly. Again. And that was it. Forty minutes, played with an intensity I’m not convinced they could sustain for any longer.
Not bad for a debut gig in this country, all told. It was also sold-out, which was quite impressive for an artist that hasn’t had a great deal of coverage presswise over here yet. Here’s hoping for more shows here in the future, eh?