Chelsea Wolfe’s music has made a steady progression to darker and heavier sounds. Her last record, 2015’s Abyss, came across like an assured embrace of the doom-metal tendencies that had always infused her gothic drone-folk sounds since the lo-fi arrival of The Grime And The Glow. It lent thundering percussion and wall-of-sound theatrics to her pensive, elongated vocals, making for an intense, if a bit too portentous, album. Or at least that’s how it sounded at the time. With this new release, Wolfe has taken the more-is-more approach of Abyss and plunged it into the blackest morass imaginable. “You only thought you knew portentous,” it seems to warn, and by the end, the listener is exhausted, put through the wringer emotionally, and repetitively.
Hiss Spun is a full-on sludge-metal extravaganza, never content to go slow and heavy when it could be going slower and heavier. The bombast is overwhelming, and while there’s an admirable zeal to her drive for making almost every second as intense as possible, it begins to get numbing, the musical equivalent of a Passion Of The Christ that pushes for so long that it starts to lose its force. Stripping away much of the electronic and dark folk elements that still drove Apokalypsis, this album feels like the work of a band, thanks to drummer Jess Gowrie and Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. There are still flourishes of her previous work here and there—most notably on “Two Spirit,” which goes for nearly half its running time with just an acoustic guitar and her atmospheric vocals—but overall, this is a pummeling, punishing record.
From the start of opener “Spun,” Wolfe unleashes a dirge of stately drums and wailing distortion, with a low end that would rattle speakers even on their lowest setting. “You leave me breathless, you leave me sick,” she sings, establishing the prevailing tone of dread and unease. “16 Psyche” unleashes a bluesy metal riff that could almost be on a Nick Cave track, thick with menace, before shifting into an operatic doom-metal refrain. Songs like “The Culling” and “Twin Fawn” deliver the quiet-loud theatrics that help to shake up the proceedings, but inevitably return to the same more-is-more pounding of the other tracks. Better are diversions like “Offering,” an electronic oddity that stands out for its mid-period Nine Inch Nails vibe. Never getting too showy or over-the-top, it’s a welcome variation on the overall sound.
Still, for all the genuinely moving moments—Wolfe is nothing if not inspiringly baroque in lyrics and delivery—the album as a whole coheres too much, one song blurring into the next without enough emotional or musical variance to distinguish the entirety. Even with the odd experiment or sonic transition, Chelsea Wolfe isn’t letting off the accelerator enough for listeners to appreciate the nuance.