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Chelsea Wolfe

support Christine Owman
author AP date 14/06/17 venue Babel, Malmö, SWE

The fact that half of the 20 SEK bills leftover from my past excursions to Malmö have been out-phased is a good indicator of how often I cross the Øresund bridge for concerts. In order to make that commitment, the artist in question needs to be one of my absolute favourites, one who rarely tours, or at the very least one that can always be trusted to stage a magical performance. The Sacramento, CA-based ‘doom singer-songwriter’ Chelsea Wolfe checks both the first and the last category, so my attendance of her show at the intimate Babel venue (a converted church) was never in doubt, even if it meant depriving myself of enough sleep for the following day’s work.

All photos courtesy of Peter Troest

Christine Owman

It must be difficult, finding the appropriate opening act for an artist as eccentric as Chelsea Wolfe. But the promoter has nailed it with Christine Owman — a Malmö-based musician whose slow, moody compositions have a trace of Wolfe about them and serve well to suck the sun out of the room ahead of the sombreness to come. Owman’s music is not as crushing as Wolfe’s though, leaning more toward post-rock in the vein of Sigur Rós albeit darker and without the cinematic quality that the Icelanders are renowned for. Instead of powerchords, the guitarist favours light tremolo picking, which affords Owman the space to impress us with her voice and cello — or would do so, were it not for the commanding presence of bass in the mix, courtesy of The Cardigans’ Magnus Sveningsson. In liaison with drummer Andréas Almqvist (of Vånna Inget), his main charge seems to be laying down repetitive patterns that Owman and the guitarist can then build on, but at such an obscene volume, the effect is the opposite: one seldom hears the strokes of cello that are so essential to giving Owman’s music its character.

Another thing that nags me is that the overall dynamics presented during the eight songs are so static. There is tension and grandeur in Owman’s music but too often they go unrequited, as one opportunity after the other to escalate, launch a crescendo or deliver some kind of climax or resolution is missed. With the exception of the penultimate track, which incorporates a number of interesting percussive elements and breath effects and has a feverish, séance-like energy about it, the proceedings remain subdued throughout — something that also reflects in the demeanour of the musicians. Indeed, Owman prefers understated beauty over big expressions and that by itself can be quite alluring. But the fact that so much of the drama is lost because of the nigh inaudible cello prevents me from ever becoming truly lost in her concert tonight.

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Chelsea Wolfe

By the time the lights dim to announce the main act, each of the three steppes that make up this venue is packed to the point of asphyxia and like a tidal wave, the tensely pulsing “Feral Love” washes over the audience, submerging us in the mysteries and melancholy of Chelsea Wolfe’s universe. Mobile phones are kept pocketed and for once, the crowd observes a total silence, bound by the witchery and weight of “Carrion Flowers” and “Dragged Out” (both off 2015’s "Abyss") in the wake, and as a result, the atmosphere so crucial to Wolfe’s live aesthetic reigns undisturbed. She is a shier performer than most, leaving guitarist Bryan Tulao and bassist/keyboardist Ben Chisholm with the duty of enhancing the stormiest segments with equally intense showmanship, but in contrast to her show in Denmark a year and a half ago, she seems less anxious and as a result, more willing to express herself. Her introversion now feels deliberate and casts her in an elusive light, embodying the likes of “After the Fall” and “Simple Death” perfectly. She loses herself in the music completely and by doing so, surrenders to passion, lowering her guard.

Watching Wolfe and her band, completed by drummer Jess Gowrie, is just as mesmerising as listening to her push the concept of a singer-songwriter to the limit, and sometimes past it. At the core, Chelsea Wolfe’s music is actually quite minimalist, building around her magnificent voice and strumming of guitar as the genre would have it. But by incorporating myriad samples, effects and electronics, introducing elements of doom and arranging songs like “Iron Moon” and “Pale on Pale” into exquisite quiet/loud dynamics, the end result is something quite transcendental. It combines the longing of modern folk, the drama of post-rock and the crushing weight of doom metal into a set with so many twists and turns that one seldom pays the unyielding, trudging tempo any mind. On the contrary, the finale comprising three tracks off “Hiss Spun”, Wolfe’s upcoming fifth studio album, feels like it arrives too soon; although the metallic riffs, elegant tempo shifts and crescendos presented in the three songs (entitled “The Culling”, “Static Hum” and “16 Psyche”, respectively) give us much to look forward to this Fall, no one in the venue seems ready for Wolfe to unbind her magic just yet. Understanding this, the band returns for an encore — first to play the mood-setting, ethereal “House of Metal” and then to send us into a fever dream with the frantic ending of “Survive”.

The shunning of my personal favourite, “Grey Days”, once again introduces a hint of (very subjective) disappointment but also hope that, with a new record on the horizon, it cannot be long before Chelsea Wolfe returns to our continent, perhaps even with that beautiful piece included on the setlist. And, with Wolfe herself having now transformed from shy and unsure into a formidable performing artist, it must be punished with a firing slip should the Danish bookers all forego the opportunity to present the band when inevitably they do return this or next year. Certain festivals should be taking note as well.

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Setlist:

  • 01. Feral Love
  • 02. Carrion Flowers
  • 03. Dragged Out
  • 04. We Hit a Wall
  • 05. After the Fall
  • 06. Simple Death
  • 07. Iron Moon
  • 08. Pale on Pale
  • 09. The Culling
  • 10. Static Hum
  • 11. 16 Psyche

— Encore —

  • 12. House of Metal
  • 13. Survive

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