Chelsea Wolfe – ‘Birth Of Violence’

By Fiachra Johnston

Chelsea Wolfe is a musician who knows her strengths. That’s not to say that her work is repetitive – far from it. The Californian Queen of Dirges has a penchant for weaving her signature reverberating style through multiple genres, ranging from simple acoustic folk, to full-on doom metal, to electronic neofolk. ‘Birth Of Violence’, Wolfe’s sixth album, is none of these. While it certainly takes the slow weightiness of her last venture, ‘Hiss Spun’, and on a surface level appears quite similar to her first two albums in that it is predominantly acoustic, this is its own beast – one that strays from the usually grandiose sonic displays in favour of a more restrained showing.

Connected to ideas of travel and the trials and tribulations it brings over time – the opening track, ‘Mother Road’, is an open letter to white line fever and an ode to the famous Route 66 – ‘Birth Of Violence’ is rooted in Americana. Wolfe’s connection to the American tradition makes for a record with a broad thematic reach, and the music, personal as it may be, touches on ancient struggles. The weariness of songs like ‘Highway’, and the quiet anger over the fight for the planet in ‘Erde’, draw on the most basic of values.

There are certainly more personal stories on the album, including the titular ‘Birth of Violence’, but even they are then brought back to relate into the wider tradition. It’s an interesting contrast to see such universal themes funnelled into some of the more reserved instrumentation and production on this album, but it plays so well into the style of the record – almost akin to a Cormac McCarthy novel in its presentation, like staring out at a bleak but grand world through the smallest hole in the wall.

Wolfe’s esoteric depictions of the world make for, as mentioned, a relatively soft showing for her. She has said she wanted to move away from the denseness and full band arrangements of previous works, and sonically, it delivers an emptiness fitting for depicting the loneliness of long periods of travel. There’s an intense loneliness to many of the tracks, with the second half of the album being a perfect showing of this as it features quiet pianos and a shift to a softer, more melancholic ambience.

While a few of these tracks, like ‘Little Grave’, can feel like rather by-the-numbers ballads, especially for Wolfe, they do a wonderful job of displaying qualities sometimes overshadowed by other aspects of her work, particularly with the vocals. Wolfe’s vocal range in these moments, and indeed on the rest of the album, is as impressive as ever, and the space provided by the music allows her to show off a little, proving that behind all intricate atmosphere and production of her work there is an incredibly gifted singer-songwriter.

‘Birth Of Violence’ won’t satisfy fans of Chelsea Wolfe’s more electronically-focused work. Neither is it meant for fans of the more bombastic zealotry of her doom metal-heavy later pieces. This is an intimate presentation of exhaustion, one that sounds eerily familiar to us, yet appears distant all at once. It’s smoke drifting on the wind, and divisive as it may be, it’s a unique record that stands out as its own being among Wolfe’s plethora of releases – one that reflects her life’s journey, both metaphorical and literal, better than anything that has come before.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

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