After a near-decade of building intensity that culminated in two albums of industrial sludge, Chelsea Wolfe goes off in the completely opposite direction on Birth of Violence. But while this album’s folk-oriented direction suggests a sound similar to her early efforts, this isn’t exactly a revisit of Unknown Rooms. Instead, the darkness of Abyss and Hiss Spun is paired with a more Americana aesthetic marked by rustic acoustic strums and a more varied vocal presentation.
Regardless of the style at hand, atmosphere plays a key role in shaping Birth of Violence. The album’s tone is dry and desolate, fitting its Western theme, as moods range from wide openness to Wolfe’s signature claustrophobia. But just as dry lightning can strike in the desert, there’s a crackling sense of tension that is exacerbated by haunting helpings of electronics and distortion. We never see these buildups give way to explosive bursts of heaviness, but the relentless surges end up resolving as their own payoffs.
And while a focus on subdued songwriting can make the album seem one-dimensional overall, the individual songs avoid sounding too samey. Electronics are often applied to varying degrees, allowing each song to settle into distinct dynamics. This reaches its logical conclusion early on as “Deranged for Rock & Roll” makes for a dramatic outlier due to its overt distortion and stronger drumming. The sonics risk sounding out of place but it thankfully preserves the album’s vibe.
The vocals also play an important role in distinguishing songs as Wolfe varies her approach more than usual to suit the moods at play. Songs like “The Mother Road” and “American Darkness” are defined by a more upfront presence, “Be All Things” pairs wafting vocals with wistful guitar, “Erde” and “Highway” lather more ominous layering, and “Little Grave” and “Preface to a Dream Play” put in more unnerving shrills. Seeing how her presence on the last couple albums could be overwhelmed by the heavier elements, it’s great to hear the vocals play an active role again.
Whether Birth of Violence is merely a stylistic detour or a directional overhaul, it shows Chelsea Wolfe delivering her strengths in yet another environment. Its folk direction keeps from feeling regressive due to the western atmosphere and the varied dynamics prove that she doesn’t need heaviness to be haunting. It’s another one of those albums that sounds like it was meant to be played while driving in the middle of the desert. Dry lightning optional.
“Be All Things”
“Preface to a Dream Play”