Monday, November 20, 2017

Hungry Like the Wolfe: Chelsea Wolfe at Le National

When my boss asks what I’m doing this weekend, it is already fast approaching three thirty, the time I’ve been aiming to duck out to go and meet the lads. I tell her I’m going to see a show tonight in Montreal, and I’m leaving straight from here. “Chelsea Wolfe”, I tell her when she asks who it is I’m seeing. “Her earlier stuff was almost folksy, but her newer stuff is a bit more rock/metal.” My boss makes a face at that last bit of info, so I take the hint, wrap up the conversation, and get going.

Eric’s ready when I climb into the car, so I head to his to wait for Ed; band business is discussed, rehashed, turned over. Growing impatient, we decide to preempt Ed and head to Vanier. As we cross the river on Montreal Road, a guy driving in the opposite direction tries to turn left in front of us, down a side street to our right. The traffic is heavy and going nowhere fast, so I slow down to let him through. Unfortunately, a bro sporting a baseball cap in a Subaru crawls up to our right in the bumper-to-bumper bedlam, and with only a small shit-eating grin, soundly blocks the side street that buddy is trying to turn down. Buddy rolls down his window, and the two of them start to have at it. After no small amount of escalation, the bellowing starts, and as the traffic finally starts to move, Subaru-bro ends it, non-ironically screaming, “FAGGOT! GROW UP!” before driving along. More or less safely ensconced in the 3 series, Eric and I are beside ourselves, reduced to tears of hysteria at the primeval brodown we’ve just borne witness to.

Ed finally clears the 417, and after as short stop at his, where we stock up on glucose- and caffeine-laden beverages for the return trip, we’re on our way, the straight six of the 325 gurgling east down the TransCanada highway. It’s only approaching six, and yet it’s already dark; a litany of bugs begin to kamikaze onto the windshield. We bomb into Montreal in two hours flat, and find a parking spot on the street only half a kilometre away from Le National. Before the show, we’re meant to be meeting her most fabulous highness, Pascal, but unfortunately, we’re late getting in, and Pascal is fashionably, predictably late in getting to us, so upon her arrival, we hurriedly light some spinning and catch up; in search of a quick drink, we encounter an oddly upscale St. Hubert, where after protracted waiting, we are eventually able to order a pitcher of Stella. Harvey Weinstein and gender politics are the topical ruminations—somehow Ed’s not heard of the Weinstein debacle, and so we bait him, accusing him of living under a rock. By the time we finish the beer, we’re nowhere closer to having an answer to the systemic abuses of power, but definitely we’re closer to being caught up.

After some gentle coaxing, Pascal decides to join us for the show, hoping they still have tickets for sale at the door. As we go to walk in, a man prophetically asks if we need tickets, and Pascal says yes. For the princely price of twenty dollars, she gains admittance, and we get in just in time to run straight against the exodus of patrons from the end of Youth Code’s set. Staking out the floor, we find space up by stage left, along the wall. The roadies are setting up for Wolfe’s set, and I spy Fred Sablan, the bassist, tuning up and checking his rig.

It’s a bit of a wait between sets, and in the process I spy Will from Montreal-based Projekt F across the floor against the wall on stage right. I sally over, with Eric, Ed, and Pascal following, and lovingly flick at Will’s nipples. We greet his friend, and lament the regrettable absence of our mutual friend Dany, Will’s former bandmate and current drummer of the Graveyard Strippers—another Montreal-based metal band—and discuss an upcoming show of our own in Ottawa. (Sadly, this show will die on the table a week later after the organizer fails to deliver on their promise of a confirmed date with a confirmed venue.)

Around this point, the stage is set and the music starts: a grey moonlike orb, surrounded by a four level amphitheatre of light, glows an eerie white, and the crushing bass of ‘Spun’, the album opener, surges across the venue. Sablan and Ben Chisholm, the guitarist, are clad in semi-militaristic black shirts, bereft of any discernible makeup; Jess Gowrie, the drummer, sits behind the others on a riser, a clockwork and well-oiled machine carrying the band rhythmically forwards. By the closing bars of the song, the entire venue is enraptured, swaying. The band moves into ’16 Psyche’, even more melodic and dissonant than ‘Spun’, lifting up into Wolfe’s signature ethereal incantations.

‘Vex’ follows, a personal favourite, somewhere between darkwave and doom metal, Sara Taylor from Youth Code flying on stage for the gore vocals previously done by Aaron Turner of ISIS in the studio version. The band continues into ‘Particle Flux’, Sablan leading with a double-time bass line met with tribal tom work by Gowrie, both staying in the pocket with aplomb, lifting up in the mid-song bridge, matching one another beat for beat.

After this, they launch into material from Abyss, electing for the brutally heavy ‘Carrion Flowers’, the album opener. One of her more commercially successful numbers (having been used in an ad for the 2017 Jaguar XE), its downtempo jazziness oozes sex, death, and poetry, the ready and rhythmic snare breaking through the mix like the crack of a whip. The pulsing synth and meaty thwack of the toms hits me right in the intracranial fluid, the upswell of the synth something like the aforementioned supercar flying down immaculate asphalt. ‘After the Fall’ follows (omitting ‘Dragged Out’, unlike the set the night prior, and the night to follow), another personal favourite. Each song is necessarily different than its album iteration, and interestingly so—Chisholm is controlling drum loops and playing keys intermittently as required by the demands of each song, and although nothing he’s playing is particularly impressive in terms of instrumentation or effects, he serves a higher purpose in the name of band cohesion. The rippling synths crash over me in waves, the low-mid frequencies reverberating across my anatomy, and for neither the first nor the last time that evening, I experience frissons, goosebumps, Ganzefleisch—a true and tangible sense of the sublime.

Photo Credit: Author
‘Tracks (Tall Bodies)’ comes next, off Apokalypsis, one of Wolfe’s albums I’m less familiar with, but it clearly hearkens back to her earlier, folksier roots with its simple hooks and refrains. ‘Feral Love’ from Pain is Beauty follows (which accompanied the season four trailer for Game of Thrones), eerie in flesh as it sounds on the album, the synthesizer in the background some Poesian tell-tale tattle, ending in an oceanic crescendo, thickly dark and reverberating lushly across the packed venue—“Your eyes black like an animal”, the two note backdrop echoing into the night. ‘The Warden’, another song from Pain is Beauty comes next, bubblier than the others, but still very much gothpop and ominous, bouncing off the speakers merrily and harmoniously, the closest the night gets to anything like cheery.

Returning to Hiss Spun, ‘The Culling’ comes next, starting quietly and calmly before Sablan’s bass comes crushing down, with eerie squeals from Chisholm on the off-beats, doom-filled and furious, toms pounding through on the downbeat, building to a shimmering crescendo before once again diving down into the maudlin verse, winding down mournfully. ‘Twin Faun’ follows, my standout favourite from the new album, and I am unequivocally delighted for it to have made the setlist. The gentle harmonies Wolfe strums at the start slowly build into the guitar shriek of the chorus, crushing and unapologetic. As the song ends, the other band members and Wolfe disappear from the stage, unslinging their instruments and putting them to rest.

However, there’s more to come: after a few minutes of raucous applause, Wolfe reappears, gently strumming the chords to ‘Halfsleeper’ from The Grime and the Glow, one of the more deliciously depressing and melodic numbers; frissons ensue encore. For the evening’s final number, the rest of the band reappears, launching into ‘Scrape’ from Hiss Spun, Wolfe shrieking like a sirenic banshee, rolling on the floor of the stage torturedly, twisting and convulsing with breathtaking and beautiful madness. As the final notes ring out, the applause grows, and so does the sense of awe.

As the house lights slowly bloom amber, the crowd starts to filter out, many queueing for merch or the washrooms; I stay to chat with friends, the OPHUS CD crammed in the pocket of my slacks, waiting for Wolfe or Sablan. Eventually Wolfe appears, taking photos with fans and signing merch; I nod toward her at Eric, who balks only a little and says he wants to get something signed, heading to the burgeoning queue. Sighing, I spy Sablan tearing down his rig at the corner of the stage, one lone lady approaching him and asking if he’d mind sparing a pick, which he gladly does. Primed and ready, I make my move; striding over, I make eye contact, and smiling, tell him his bass tone sounded phenomenal tonight, which he smiles at and thanks me for, commenting that he’s been playing around with his rig. “Yeah, I’ve seen it—I have you on Instagram,” I tell him, “you were nice enough to answer a gear question of mine a while back.” Eric, Ed, and Will appear behind me, noting my interaction, and Eric starts talking to Sablan about Hour of Goon, his podcast with (now ex-)Marilyn Manson bassist, Jeordie White (White having been publicly accused of rape only a few short hours ago). After further we’re not worthy-ing, I pull out the OPHUS CD and hand it to Sablan. “In case you need something to listen to later,” I think I say, and Sablan says “Thanks,” then “what’s the band name?”, to which Eric and I reply, “ooluu”. “Woah…awesome cover,” Sablan says, holding it out and squinting thoughtfully.

  Will asks Sablan for some picks, and obliging him, hands him several, and though I think he means for Will to share, the silly bastard pockets the lot. However, I don’t mind—I’ve got my share of collectible picks, and the true treat is this chance to put my art in the hands of an artist I respect tremendously. Wolfe sadly never reappears, and so Eric has to carry his copy around, gormless, having missed his chance to hobnob with gothic royalty.

Exiting the venue, Pascal suggests getting a drink and hanging out more, but I’m driving and have been up since five thirty in the morning, and have at least two and a half hours on the road yet to go, meaning I’ll be getting in bed by three a.m. if I’m lucky. Despite my driverly veto, Will also says we should get a beer, and after some small arm twisting—“How often are you in Montreal? It’s a Friday!”—I relent and agree. Leaving behind the nearby watering holes, we venture down the street for a couple kilometres, searching for Le Saint Bock on St. Denis at Eric’s behest. When we arrive, the hockey game is on, and a contributing factor for Will’s congeniality in walking this far becomes evident. We chat, kill a pint, and at the princely hour of two a.m., we bid farewell to Will and Pascal, and head back to the BMW.

Having come prepared with all sorts of caffeine, I nonetheless want to be able to fall asleep when I finally get in, and opt to ride the lighting of my own adrenaline and mortal trepidation. The ride is quiet and uneventful, but too much so—on cruise control, the 325 glides down the highway like a ghost, and highway hypnosis strikes as we draw ever closer to Ottawa. I crack a lime Pepsi halfway home for the glucose and caffeine, and fortunately, I manage to keep my eyes open, and everyone gets home alive.

My ears are still ringing and the night is still black by the time I reach the far-flung Carp Hills, but the spectacle I’ve witnessed has awoken a hunger in me for performance.

This is just the beginning of something greater—I can already tell.

Photo Credit: Author