When Los Angeles singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe released her second album, Apokalypsis, last year, her read of black metal forefather Burzum’s “Black Spell of Destruction” found her voice undergoing a transmogrification into Nordic wind: a lightless, flesh-chilling howl to go with the industrial gloom. So when Wolfe sings “I want Flatlands/ I don’t want precious stones” on the opening song on her latest album, Unknown Rooms, her throat now feels sun-warmed and vulnerable. Which is the perfect change for the gentler instrumentation now about her. And when the cellos come in to mingle with her voice midway through the song, it’s a stunning amalgam.
Subtitled A Collection of Acoustic Songs, her latest album suits Wolfe’s strengths, allowing nuance, rather than more shadows. Lyrically, Wolfe remains bleak (see the a cappella “I Died With You”) – which makes her liner notes’ nod to Townes Van Zandt all the more telling – but now the songs come first. Stripped back to acoustic guitar, church organ, a tom drum and upheavals of strings, Wolfe moves towards the austerity of folk in a way that feels natural. There’s a bit of PJ Harvey on the country-tinged “Appalachia,” but more often, traces of singers like Josephine Foster and Sibylle Baier can be gleaned. But on the haunting, elegiac harmonies of “Spinning Centers,” Wolfe’s voice now feels gentle as a breeze, even as it still sends a shiver.