I make a deliberate effort to avoid visits to my alma mater because I tend to leave with a sense of longing for the simpler times of being a UCLA student. Nevertheless, I could not turn down an opportunity to witness the pairing of Chelsea Wolfe and Anna Calvi at my former campus’ Royce Hall. On paper, it’s the most ingeniously devised double bill since I saw The White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs across town back in 2003, which was, appropriately enough, three days before my first class as a proper Bruin.
Anna Calvi’s new album is titled One Breath, and she left the crowd literally catching it on more than one occasion. Whether due the surprise of hearing such wicked guitar chops in a formal setting or a stunned awe for the primal intensity on display, several in the pin-drop-silent crowd audibly gasped during “Cry” and “Carry Me Over”. Calvi’s guitar freakouts were matched dramatically by a similarly jaw-dropping vocal style that both hushed and soared with operatic intensity. The mysterious artist declared by Brian Eno to be “the best thing since Patti Smith” was at her most enthralling as she tapped into her cinematic influences for the sultry tones of desert blues riffer “I’ll Be Your Man” and “Sing to Me”, whose lush arrangements channeled Calvi’s inner Morricone.
Like Anna Calvi before her, Chelsea Wolfe exhibited similar brooding and impassioned styles shrouded in mystique. Wolfe’s entrance theme? A mix of swelling violins and a sinister bass rumble so deep that it rattled my insides. The affect was akin to a near-death experience where the soul is simultaneously being pulled by the forces of both heaven and hell.
Draped in robes of white and red and supported by a black-clad band and pair of violinists, Wolfe appeared as spectral as her latest album Pain Is Beauty. The icy grip of electronic-tinged gothic hymns such as “Feral Love” and “The Waves Have Come” reached for the heart, with their reflective disharmony gazing upon the pain and darkness within the souls of all within grasp. This journey of the soul included a returning gallop to the desert previously visited by Calvi, courtesy of the ominous twang of “We Hit a Wall”. The evening ferociously climaxed with Apokalypsis cut “Pale on Pale”, which slowly built to a visceral intensity that thundered with the menace of a potent psychedelic trip gone bad.
There’s a delicate balance between beauty and gloom, and it’s one that Chelsea Wolfe masterfully worked as she pushed the boundaries between folk, metal, and drone. Upon returning to the stage for an encore, Wolfe dropped the veil of mystery and intimated that the night was her “most awkward show ever.” Gazing upon the crowd of students and older music lovers may have been “like a sea of blackness; I can’t see anybody”, but she was nevertheless grateful to be there. The feeling was likewise.