Liturgy & Chelsea Wolfe @ BOTH, San Francisco

When Chelsea Wolfe and her band took the stage at Bottom of the Hill just after 10:00pm on Wednesday night she wore an air of confidence that made her almost unrecognizable.   The black veil over her face now just aesthetic, a barrier between her and the crowd was no longer necessary.  The house was packed and everyone was shoulder-to-shoulder singing along ‘what’s the use in wasting time, when we’ve finally found a home’ It was instantly evident Chelsea Wolfe had found a new home in the public eye.  A home on the stage.  The nervous girl performing at Café du Nord just a few short months ago was ‘feeling fine’, a sentiment shared by the diverse crowd on this uncharacteristically warm San Francisco evening.

Donning a white dress, black leggings and never revealing her true face, Ms. Wolfe traded the tambourine for her black guitar before performing  “Demon”,  “Mers” and “Tracks”, all from the previously available (via Bandcamp) and upcoming (physical ) release, Apokalypsis.   Contagious emotions coming off the stage created a sorta symbiosis between entertainer and entertained – whether it be via funeral or a party, we would follow this faceless girl into the end of days.

“Moses” was a highlight of the set – the immediate cheer of recognition as soon as the first chords were struck confirmed she owned her audience. This was not a Liturgy crowd suffering through an opening act — the majority of the people in attendance were here for Chelsea Wolfe.  Moses is a great song and the most recognizable as the sole track that exists on both albums, but what really sets Chelsea apart as a vocalist is the blurred boundaries between true lyrics and vocal noise – a haunting  talent that was showcased on the last two songs, “Movie Screen” and “Pale on Pale”.  Chelsea Wolfe, the person and the band, seduced us with deceivingly beautiful soundscapes before drowning it all out with ferocious feedback – leaving us with conflicted emotions and ringing ears.  The night could have ended with their set and it would have been worth the hike out to the Hill.

The headliner of the night was a band that has received more than its fair share of press lately.  Positive and negative.  Liturgy are a self-described ‘transcendental black metal’ band from Brooklyn, NY and it seems everyone has an opinion about them.  Some of this is based around a manifesto and comments made by Hunter Hunt Hendrix.  Without getting into the drama, (it’s all a Google search away if you are interested), in trying to define the future of black metal they have sparked a heated conversion in a genre already full of heated conversations.  I myself have my own mixed feelings around this band.  When I first heard them I found their music repetitive and boring, but when a series of events provided me the opportunity to attend this show, I decided to revisit Aesthethica.  What I found was deeper and more complex than I had originally given them credit for.  I found the key to my enjoyment was headphones – good headphones at a high volume.

To be completely honest I am nowhere near technical enough to review my hour long experience with Liturgy, so I will do my best to explain what I witnessed. The four-piece took the stage just after 11:00pm and performed some of the most technical “black metal” I have ever seen.  Greg Fox was in an absolute zone, unblinking wide-eyes staring off into the middle distance while his arms seemed to be moving on their own trajectory, something operating separate from the body they were connected to — an absolute machine, I could have watched him for hours.  The rest of the band were just as inhuman.  Fingers a blur, these guys were absolute machines and that’s where part of the problem lay.  There was absolutely no personality onstage.  I understand removing the corpsepaint and theatrics from black metal, but Hunter’s vocal and stage persona just seemed lazy, especially when riding on top of such insane instrumentation.  Blast (burst) beats at break neck speed, lightning fast tremolo picking and then     uninspired vocal?  It almost seemed like an insult. However, there is something very unique about what Liturgy are doing; I will not take that away from them.  I have attended quite a few black metal shows and this was different than anything that came before.  I just can’t say it was better.  If you are looking for incredibly talented young musicians playing an aggressive type of music that is almost trance-like, I highly recommend this band.  Some of the instrumental sections were truly devastating.  But if you are looking for a high-energy metal show, this is not the band.  The two dudes trying (unsuccessfully) to start a pit can attest to that.

My hopes of coming to a concrete conclusion on Liturgy were dashed within the first few minutes of their performance.  Leaving the venue I did not like or dislike the band any more than when I flew into the Bay Area earlier in the week.  I like the music, I enjoyed seeing it performed live, I prefer it through headphones and I’m not a fan of the vocal.  I guess I’ll just have to leave it at that.

In my humble opinion, Wednesday night in San Francisco was definitely Chelsea Wolfe’s night.  Even as an opening act her audience was larger than Liturgy’s, which can probably be explained by her being a West Coast act. The two will be on tour this together for the next couple weeks and it will be interesting to see if the crowd dynamics change in other cities.  Both bands are so unique in today’s musical landscape that it will also be interesting to see where they go from here.  Over the past few months Chelsea Wolfe has shared a stage with How To Dress Well, Julianna Barwick and now Liturgy — if that isn’t a testament to the diverse nature of her music, I don’t know what is.   I think the future is bright for both of these acts, but I would place my money on Chelsea Wolfe performing without a veil before opening for Liturgy again. Not taking anything away from this line-up, I believe it works well, but my guess is she will be headlining her own shows after the release of Apokalypsis.

On a sidenote, the social aspect of Wednesday night’s show was awesome.  We got to catch up with Chelsea around her SXSW experience, touring with such a divergent array of artists and what she’s been up to since we last spoke.  We also ran into the guys from Deafheaven and were able to catch up with them about the end of their tour, demoing new material and what they’ve been up to.  And the real highlight of the night?  George from Deafheaven talking to Chelsea about contributing vocals to some of their new material.  Gotta hope that happens!

Overall, a great show that I was lucky enough to be in the city for.

Chelsea’s Setist:
Advice and vices
Movie screen
Pale on pale