Chelsea Wolfe + Ioanna Gika @ Le National – 27th October 2019

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Chelsea Wolfe at Le National in Montreal

It’s a miserable, rainy Sunday in Montreal, which is actually quite fitting for an evening of darkly atmospheric songs from two enchanting artists.

Raised in Northern California with a country musician father, genre-bending singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe has been giving audiences an alternate vantage point since her career got off the ground at the start of this decade. Wolfe has always had a way of dignifying moods that we might otherwise refer to as “brooding.” But with her latest album Birth of Violence, she makes perhaps her most convincing statement to date, reminding us once again that angst is not the exclusive province of young adults.

Where so much of the so-called darkness in music falls into the realm of stylized affectation, Wolfe’s presentation doesn’t allow for one-dimensional readings and doesn’t fall prey to self-parody. She has always shown keen awareness in her portrayals of emotional states like apprehension and grief. Her work has blended elements of gothic rock, doom metal, and folk music. Tonight’s show at Le National takes a more acoustic approach, accompanied by long-time collaborator Ben Chisholm, a stunning light show and a stage set comprising of twisted branches and candle-lights.

Ioanna Gika in Montreal

Tonight’s concert sees Wolfe’s Sargent House labelmate Ioanna Gika opening proceedings with a minimal yet well-received set combining classical tones with cool, dark, and modern electronic moods. Gika has said that her debut album Thalassa “is a document of the dread, the adrenaline, and the surrender in the moments when you realize the only way to survive is to brace yourself and go through.” That vibe resonates throughout her short set, with Swan being a particular standout. Heart-breaking and uplifting all at once, the song envelopes Ioanna’s haunting vocals with a warm embrace.

There are certainly similarities between Gika and Wolfe’s style, even down to the flowing white dresses and otherworldliness. But for all the ambience and genre-juggling we’ve come to expect from Wolfe, her songwriting takes centre stage here tonight. On most songs, she plays beautiful acoustic guitar and remains stood still on a raised platform in the centre of the stage. Chisolm adds layers of guitar and keyboards from the side of the stage and it’s left to the dramatic lighting to add the visual elements that accompany these haunting songs.

Having said that she has been influenced by artists as diverse as Aaliyah, Nick Cave and Burzum, Wolfe’s sound has developed into something utterly unique, with her soprano vocals taking each piece to a new level of atmospheric immersion. Of the new material, The Mother Road is a particular standout. Wolfe sings, “Guess I needed something to break me / Guess I needed something to shake me up,” a simple yet evocative melody she repeats over acoustic guitar strums and eerie coils of background noise.

Tonight there’s a lack of Chelsea Wolfe’s metal influences, save for the dark lyrical content. The sound is soft, yet multi-layered and no less heavy despite the lack of electric guitars. These songs can often mask their sophistication behind plodding, strummy, dreamy facades but the audience seems totally transfixed by the performance. Shouts of “We love you” and “Thank you” are received with a smile but the singer keeps chat to a bare minimum throughout.

“This is a cover of a Joni Mitchell song I love called Woodstock” she tells us as she leaves her raised platform to join Chisholm for just one song. It’s a gorgeous rendition that takes the song into a darker place without losing its beauty.

With the stripped-back sound, tonight’s performance feels even more evocative and personal and truly showcases Wolfe’s sometimes harrowing vocals. There are few performers whose voice can stun a room to enchanted silence like she manages tonight.

Review & photos – Steve Gerrard

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