In the wake of Chelsea Wolfe’s 2012 wave of tranquil folk known as Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs, and the noisier, doom-drenched Apokolypsis the year prior, fans were left reeling by the broody subject matter they were lured into exploring — feelings like dazed wonderment, deep depression, and fascination (or concern) with just how bummed out the pensive singer/songwriter can get. Others have been holding their breath in melodramatic anticipation, curious to see if Wolfe can transcend the limitations of her goth folk pigeonhole by doing something huge. The good news is that everyone can let out a sigh of relief, because her newest release, Pain is Beauty, takes listeners to the highest of highs, all thanks to Wolfe’s willingness to get low and descend even further into the gloom-hole.
Dense, rich musical influences inhabit Wolfe’s world this time around. There are broad and distinctive strokes of seductive goth rock, psych folk, and post-punk, while the addition of synths and sequenced beats create an expansive hybrid of her past three albums. This is instantly clear with album opener “Feral Love”, starting off at about a seven on the Scale of Impending Doom thanks to a heavily-reverbed bass line that gives way to crashing guitars and a twitchy beat (which in turn activates the ’90s Noise Rock Meter). The nuclear armageddon continues on “We Hit a Wall”, which plods along a minimalist post-punk path before introducing the strings that offer the first suggestion of orchestral rock as a destination. “House of Metal” and “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” similarly splice strings and acoustic elements with electro-clicks and empyrean swells of reverb in a meeting of the earthly with the unearthly.
Album single “The Warden” uses its techno beat and gaited mandolin to construct a chic, internationalist, city-beat sound — the ultimate melange of Venice, Miami Vice, and ’90s Japanese video game scores. Wolfe’s Final Fantasy is only just beginning though, because the eerie synths and sinister, subterranean vocal effects of “Sick” and “Kings” call forth post-apocalyptic undertones of ’70s horror movies and their affiliated music lords: Tangerine Dream’s Sorcerer soundtrack, or John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 — hell, even Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight Express and Goblin’s daggy Euro-rock come to mind, but minus the tubular bells. (Note to self: begin stirring up rumors of a Goblin reunion with Wolfe as an additional member.) Those tracks bring a cinematic quality to the mix, while reserved touches of folk on “Reins” and “Lone” reaffirm that Pain is Beauty doesn’t really linger inside or outside of this world. There actually isn’t much lingering with “Lone” in general, as it clocks in under two minutes and 40 seconds — a real contrast from the rest of the tracks, which average about 5 minutes. The occasional lengthiness could be an issue for some listeners, but in the time that Wolfe takes to get to her point, a lot of transforming and renewal takes place that can be appreciated with patience.
Perhaps the best example of this gradual development and expansion is on “The Waves Have Come”, the next-to-last track that takes eight minutes to tell a story of love lost and destroyed by a natural disaster. At least that’s what the press release says it’s about, but most of Wolfe’s words are garbled, enshrouded, or submerged underwater, thanks in part to her vocal delivery, but mainly due to the album’s production. Considering that she’s a high poetess, it would be great to hear more of those plaintive lyrics, but perhaps that’s just one of the album’s paradoxes, much like the album’s title. In fact, “The Waves Have Come” symbolizes that title well, starting out with moody piano and the same two chords for four minutes (that’s the painful part) until somewhere around the five-minute mark, when Wolfe’s melodic realization causes the song to shift. Then comes a release of tension with a divine resolution that can only be described as pain and beauty finally becoming one. That epitomization of the album’s title could be a sufficient end to things right there, but the two-minute surprise of “Lone” nails the coffin lid shut — the final confirmation of Wolfe’s achievement in breaking her goth folk shackles with the supernatural powers of Pain is Beauty.
Essential Tracks: “The Waves Have Come”, “The Warden”, and “Sick”