Witchery of the Intellect, a Chelsea Wolfe Live

Orange and yellow lights cast long shadows across the stage. Hundreds of upturned faces catch the glow, bright as the early November maple leaves I waded through on my way to the show. A funeral rattle from the drum kit and the synths' sigh sway the audience. I peer through the forest of tall bodies. On stage a thin, white shawl lifts, catches the autumnal light in its gauzy weave. Grey suggestions of limbs shift beneath the fabric. The voice emanating from shroud belies the scene, pulsing through the reverb. Her long, dark frame emerges from the cloth and merges with the shadows. The audience bends as the thrumming gusts of bass pick up intensity, and her face slips from beneath the shawl, a still oval with two watchful smudges. Chelsea Wolfe's voice twists across and between notes with sinuous power.

It's a strange sort of witchery we willingly subject ourselves to, music. Some genres work a direct sort of magic, the kind that taps into the animal fact of your body. Others stir their audience through methods more obscure.

I'm a fan of genres of music wherein performers routinely refer to their concerts as rituals, candles get lit, censers are borne through the crowd, and Satan/Yog-Sothoth/nature/Hecate is invoked. Some bands elicit unfettered participation from a spellbound audience. Others induce a mass evacuation to the bar.

The success rate has nothing to do with how seriously you might be able to take the music on your home stereo. Inquisition's got a song about cutting one's man boobs for Satan, which, catchy piece of music though it be, induces giggles every time it comes up on shuffle. But I'll be damned if I didn't witness Dagon build an atmosphere of mounting fervor and solidarity in a sweaty, bro filled Mission attic. Jex Thoth, on the other hand, transports you to a world of ancient magic through your stereo, but when she purified Kuudes Linja with a ritual straight out of Spells for Teenage Witches, I was not the only fan in the room she almost lost.

Chelsea Wolfe attempted nothing so direct at her Helsinki gig early this November. I'd anticipated the show for a couple of months, but arrived late because I can never remember how to put on eyeliner. Tavastia was packed to the back and drenched in low, frosty sound. Wolfe was in the middle of her first song.

Chelsea Wolfe. Credit to Vitor Mazuco.

Chelsea Wolfe. Credit to Vitor Mazuco.

Wolfe's music falls squarely under the label of  drone-metal-art-folk, according to her website. With four albums behind her, Wolfe's style has shifted over the years in a way that defies the trend of hyperspeciation within any given music scene. Her first album, The Grime and the Glow was 2010's hit chillout soundtrack for metalheads. Two albums later, her take on acoustic folk, Unknown Rooms, invites you to close your eyes and let the rusty Chevy of your mind embark on a Hunter S. Thompson-esque road trip through a mythical Nevada replete with psyche-bats.

On Wolfe's albums the vocals drown in reverb and filters. Live, the distortion can't contain the fullness of her voice. The albums saturate the listener in sonic atmosphere; her performance inspires consideration of verbal objects. Her live singing communicates the same melancholic reflection and wistfulness but demands her listeners attend to the stories her songs weave. Chelsea Wolfe's is an observational sort of witchery.

The experience of a concert is as much about the audience as about the performer. While Wolfe transfixed Tavastia, she did not transport. I felt rooted in a grove of strangers, hyperaware of details but hardened to their influence. She moved underneath her voluminous shawl, behind her hair, before the audience recalling a seiðkona working beneath the cloak, but she created a mental impression only. Perhaps a Chelsea Wolfe performance is an affair of the intellect, mystic elements presented as objects of contemplation.

Whatever it was, I was sorry to see it end. Until she makes it back to Europe, I'll have to be satisfied with Wolfe's growing discography. Having heard what she's capable of live sheds new light on the recordings stylistics. Hear for yourself. Give her a spin at http://www.chelseawolfe.net/

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