Chelsea Wolfe's newest album, Apokalypsis, begins with a bang. But it's not so much a literal bang as an otherworldly howl. It's like she's exorcising demons before the record can begin. That first scream is the 25-second “Primal/Carnal.” As the album continues, the sound softens, if only slightly from the roughness of that initial burst, and unfolds into fully formed songs. Soon, Wolfe treads into P.J. Harvey territory — more like a moody songstress than a demon.
Apokalypsis comes out Aug. 23 via Pendu, a year after her last album, The Grime and the Glow. The Sacramento-born, downtown Los Angeles–based guitarist, singer, and electronics sampler says that world news is the biggest inspiration for her lyrics. Well, news of the world along with nature, the contrast between lightness and darkness, and, basically, all of life on Earth and elsewhere.
Wolfe speaks in a slightly passive and perhaps bored monotone. She explains her musical aims thusly: “the constant search for truth and something real and at the same time kind of looking for the spiritual realm.” Her rumbling doom-folk songs are impassioned, gripping listeners' attention with clattering drums, looping synths, and lingering guitar — all to showcase her beautifully hypnotic vocals.
Wolfe's image is also intense. With her heavy, long locks; the black veil she wears onstage; and her piercing eyes (which are spookily whited-out on the new album cover) — along with the weird titles and tripped-out fonts — her creative brand seems to evoke the darkness of burgeoning subgenre witch house. But if Wolfe is an eerie distant relative of the beat-filled droning of that music, hers is a much more personal, less electronic form. She, for one, is adamant that her music is not witch house — although she's unable to say exactly what it is.
“I have a few electronic songs and electronics infused in the music, but the kinds of things that I've heard described as witch house don't really resonate with my own music,” she says, instead describing her sound as “doom folk.” “A lot of the music is about real things happening in the world, but also end times. It's not a negative connotation in my mind to call it doom.”
There's no debating that her sound comes from a place of darkness. In the past Wolfe has covered Burzum, an early-'90s Norwegian black metal outfit. Songs on Apokalypsis, such as the haunting “Pale on Pale,” cast the occasional horror movie shriek behind her looping, mesmerizing hum. And lately, Wolfe has been listening to a lot of older black metal — though also, conversely, sweet-cheeked '30s and '40s girl groups like the Andrews Sisters.
This makes sense, given her musical evolution. Growing up, Wolfe listened to black-jeaned country like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, along with 1970s rock gods like Led Zeppelin. Her interests were likely shaped in part by her father's interest in music — he was the guitarist for country band El Dorado, and had a home studio. It was there that Wolfe learned to record songs at age 9. At first, she did covers, then began writing her own tunes, enlisting her sisters as backup singers. She has been creating music ever since, with a brief break in 2008 and 2009 to relax and regroup after writing one too many “singer-songwriter, relationship songs,” as she describes them.
It was after this break that a performance artist friend offered to take her on a tour through Eastern Europe. Wolfe found herself playing impromptu shows in churches and former factories. She found the industrial sounds inspiring, and once she returned to the States, she started recording again with her eight-track. “I had to find my own voice,” she says. “I had to keep experimenting.” It was those efforts that led to her creating her entrancing new sound. Whatever you call it, be prepared for the presence of demons.