Sound — 8
While these are relatively early days in the career of Chelsea Wolfe, those with an ear to the ground have already heard the name resonating from it. She is a raw folk talent, steeped in darkness and raised on music; in 2010 she overcame considerable shyness to finally share her art with the world, in the form of a difficult, distressed LP called "The Grime and the Glow." Since then her bleak music and uniquely witchlike aura, cultivated over a slowly maturing discography, has made her a darling of both metal outcasts and socially conscious urbanites.
Wolfe is a pluralist, someone who believes in having several elements at play simultaneously; that's never been clearer than on fourth album "Pain Is Beauty." For the first time she's added a wealth of electronic sounds to her droning folk and rock, and these new influences animate the opening exchanges. "Feral Love" is gloriously dangerous, synth flickering in the background while real drums pound menacingly; the graceful "House of Metal" balances pads with weeping strings; "The Warden" is submerged in 1980s darkwave, strangely accessible through its stunted melodies and cold, throbbing beats.
The haze is ethereal and difficult to penetrate, but introducing these electronic layers helps to pull the album into focus, at the same time creating an interesting trade-off with the humming guitar. Once that sound is established later on in the album, the voice rises to the top of the mix and little can be done to resist it. "Kings" and "Reins" are depressing examples of its allure, but there is something hypnotic and attractive about the delicacy with which she describes her torture. Like a cat in the night, it carries a hint of the supernatural. At 55 minutes this album is a long journey, but that is only a minor grumble once you're swept under by the romance and corruption of it all.
Lyrics — 8
Despite her otherworldly qualities, Wolfe has long been an admirer of nature. In her lyrics it provides stability and inspiration, a springboard for other thoughts and feelings. In this way "Pain Is Beauty" explores history and mythology, the ancient themes of love and death and their place in one's life. There are shades of black metal in this ("release your dead/holy ancestors"), though the artist's own fondness of the genre is not nearly as significant in her music as some fans like to think. Her words and the breathless pronunciation which sometimes lifts them out of earshot play into the air of mystique, not least through their lack of detail. That said, songs with no substance don't tend to stir curiosity, and those collected here most certainly do. They're as intriguing as they are ambiguous.
Overall Impression — 9
For all its gothic lace, "Pain Is Beauty" seldom neglects the crucial axis of voice and accompaniment that makes it so strong. Rarely does a piece boil down to reveal more than Wolfe, alone, sitting at a piano or strumming a guitar. That is how blaring sirens fade to intimacy on "They'll Clap When You're Gone." That is how the dense lengths of "The Waves Have Come" pass into austere epilogue "Lone" with all the drama shouldered by basic chord and melody rather than the numerous changes in instrumentation. Chelsea Wolfe has proven over four diverse albums that her expression is not limited by its tools or genre, and with this, her first pass at the grand, glittering epic, she knocks the ball out of the park.