It’s getting increasingly difficult to find innovation in truly dark music — the sort of sound that disturbs, frightens, and continues to offer intrigue at the same time. A lot of musicians stick to standard scare-tactic fare — blistering static buzzsaws, sampled shrieks, and all manner of cacophonous ear-fuckery — and come off as too abrasive or experimental to be embraced by anything larger than the local noise-rock community. For those less interested in the loud-as-all-hell technique, of course, there’s neo-folk and similarly spooky ilk, but it’s difficult to be taken seriously and/or create the right sort of ambiance — especially when there are so many extremists in the scene that are not ironic in their tales of fantasy and fiction. Every so often, however, someone like Chelsea Wolfe comes along and absolutely lays waste to any detractors or raised eyebrows, likely by virtue of melting said faces off before they’re able to pass judgment. Incredibly dark, massively loud, and chilling in its intensity, Wolfe’s live performance is the kind of shadowy gloom that today’s sonic apocalyptics can only dream to achieve.
As if to offer the hope of salvation before the coming thunderstorm, the otherworldly alt-country act Wovenhand was the first to rattle speakers and thrash under the nearly-nonexistent lights of the Regency Ballroom, and despite being the polar opposite of Wolfe in message (messages of Christian faith, as opposed to bleakness and nihilism), were remarkable in both performance and reception. It’s extremely difficult to describe Wovenhand’s music; elements of old-time blues, tribal rhythms, My Bloody Valentine-esque walls of sound, chugging stoner metal, and thundering post-rock crescendos abound, all backed by the harrowing, raspy voice of singer David Eugene Edwards. With very little acknowledgement of the black-clad assemblage before them, Wovenhand plowed through their near-hour of allocated time with impressive intensity. The jerky ataxia and manic howling from Edwards was balanced out by the expert percussion of drummer Ordy Garrison, with bassist Neil Keener and guitarist Chuck French trading blows with wave after wave of sonic menace. It was a riveting performance — and, surprisingly, the most well-lit part of the entire evening.
Wovenhand’s lighting, which barely permeated the cavernous emptiness of the Regency Ballroom, could be described as “lacking” at best. When Wolfe finally joined her backing band onstage during the opening notes of “Carrion Flowers”, however, it was as if illumination had simply lost hope of trying to exist, amidst the menacing snarl of bass and the clouds of fog that had long since buried the stage in a thick haze. This, however, was no deterrent for Wolfe and her entourage; they hurtled into their set with nary a care, and it was only once Wolfe had brought her guitar roaring to life that the lights above them showed any sign of life. The band was bathed in sudden shocks of illumination, the blaze fading into nothing as quickly as it had appeared, matching the whisper-to-a-scream-and-back-again rhythm of the songs themselves. Amidst the torrential storm of distortion, tumultuous drums and hellish electronics, however, came the piercing, desperate beauty of Wolfe’s voice, every bit as haunting as on her records, and with a fierce urgency borne from the live performance.
Adopting the personas of many doom musicians long before them, Wolfe and her players moved with a slow steadiness that was as jarring in its somberness as it was in its intensity. Aside from sudden lashings of bassist/keyboardist Ben Chisholm, and the occasional jump-to-a-pounce from guitarist Aurielle Zeitler, the band entirely let the music speak for itself (and by “speak” I mean “roar with a tremendous fury”). The soft lights continued to pour over the group with a resolved despondency, occasionally cranking to life in the form of stark white strobes that followed the crashing cymbals of Dylan Fujioka’s drumwork. Past these subtle shifts in visual effects, the performance focused itself determinedly on the sound itself, and from the shimmering crashes and frail vocals to the explosive-steamroller blast of guitars, bass and synths, every note and noise held full form in the walls of the Regency Ballroom.
With her new record, Abyss, having been released just shy of two months ago, Wolfe filled most of her set with songs from her latest work, all of which were glorious to behold in a live setting. No long buried in the magic, nor the limitations, of the studio, Wolfe’s songs ranged from terrifying to feral to overwhelmingly bleak, and her sirenesque voice blended with the dark melodies to create an exquisite sound. Wolfe also treated the audience to a few classics from her older albums, drawing on works from both Pain Is Beauty and Apokalypsis to break up the slow-burn gloom of the Abyss pieces, and songs such as “Kings” and “Mer” received an ecstatic cheer within the first few notes of being played. The stark range of sound available to the band in a live setting was ever present, and definitely notable in “Survive”, the monstrous piece with which Wolfe put an end to her set, amidst the bellows of sound and the frantic shimmer of strobes above the musicians. To close the encore and the evening entire, the band resurrected the cult favorite “Pale On Pale” and careened through it with a dizzying vehemence, ending with Wolfe and Chisholm descending upon their pedalboards and choking the last remaining air with a maelstrom of fearsome, looping distortion.
I’ve always been a big believer that the visual aspect of a show goes a long way, and can make or break a performance, but Chelsea Wolfe and her crew were able to correctly demonstrate that the music itself is absolutely what makes a show. No degree of darkness — or, in this case, specifically a lack of clear visual coherency — should ever be able to take away from the sheer ferociousness of a live performance; if anything, the mystery and the disorientation of a band cast in shadow should add to the effect, and this case, it succeeded magnificently. Wolfe has written the new soundtrack to the coming end of the world, and anyone who wishes to hear its message should venture out to see her, post-haste — just be sure to bring earplugs so that you can keep listening to her after the show, too.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2015 Jonathan Pirro.