Chelsea Wolfe Overpowers at the Electric Owl

Photo credit: Kristin Cofer
Photo credit: Kristin Cofer

Chelsea Wolfe has received significant critical attention for her recent albums, Apokalypsis (2011), Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs (2012), and her most recent LP, Pain Is Beauty (2013). While she may not like to tie herself down to a genre, it’s plain what she’s doing: taking the dark, often violent sounds and imagery of Gothica and black metal and contextualizing them as elements of her ambient folk songs. Pain Is Beauty saw her incorporate more electronic elements, which, despite being part of a bigger trend in music, is a natural progression from what she has done before, and has yielded her most mature and compelling work to date.

Opening for Wolfe on Saturday night at the Electric Owl was Hanging Heart, a seven-piece post-rock group made up mostly of members of the local punk scene. Despite existing mainly as a recording project, playing live infrequently, they nevertheless put on a fairly polished performance.

Strongly dark wave-influenced, the foundation of the songs was a simple yet spooky Cure-like guitar sound, twanging with haunting chords, with keys and other guitars adding to a broad soundscape of peripheral tones. The songs were clear and concise enough for the structures and melodies to come across while keeping the audience interested. Vocals came courtesy of a single alto, whose style was appropriately dark and understated, tying together a huge blend of instruments into a cohesive whole. I wish more post-rock bands would seek this kind of focus, rather than just beat the same riffs and rhythms into the ground through dozens of effects. Hanging Heart will have my attention in the future.

For the equivalent of about two songs in the interim, the audience was subjected to canned symphonic string music and sound effects, as the stage lights changed colours periodically. It’s a set intro tactic that I’ve seen done much more effectively. While the music wasn’t unsuitable, it was repetitive and bland, and only served to distract and bore the audience. It was a confusing move, especially once the real show got underway.  Chelsea Wolfe is one of the most physically impressive new artists in alternative music: tall, gloomy, and enigmatic in appearance, her presence is devoid of flash, yet eerily powerful. The creative stage lighting and smoke machines added a lot to the ambience, but it all starts with the woman.

Sonically, her set was not as stripped-down or “intimate” as promotional material had suggested. While the lack of a drummer kept the group down to a trio (guitar/keyboard/violin), at times even that was too much. Generally, the synthesizer was the culprit, overpowering the vocals and violin, and pushing the overall sound into an excessively bass-filled direction. And really, the songs are driven by the de-tuned guitars. The guitar generally forms the centre of the harmony in Chelsea’s music, and despite its heaviness, it is not a driving riff style like what you expect from metal. Like many aspects of Chelsea as an artist, her guitar work is dark and scary, yet somehow very tender and lovely.

The muddiness of the mix was unfortunate because it distracted from Chelsea’s powerful, evocative compositions. An example of this was “We Hit A Wall”, played near the end of the set: the recording is ringing, ambient, and sombre, a gorgeous and emotional love song that stops the listener in their tracks. Live, it was performed as a fuzzed-out drone-metal attack, like what you would expect to hear from SunnO))) or Boris. What the rearrangement gained in impact, it lost in vulnerability. The balance of those elements is a huge part of what makes Chelsea’s music as special as it is, which is why it was such a loss.

A final compromise was the old “fake encore” move, which is really just a glorified break between songs. Audiences these days tend to feel entitled to encores, and there’s no surprise anymore. I expect better from accomplished artists such as Chelsea Wolfe, and I hated to see technical issues and silly choices get in the way of someone who really seems to deserve the hype she receives. But in the end the experience made me want to keep paying attention to her career, and I have hope that future adjustments to her show will really let her shine.