Self Surgery is the first release from longtime collaborators Chelsea Wolfe and Jessie Gowrie as a duo, Miss Piss. While first attempts can often be an unfocused affair, the duo avoids this trend and releases an incredible poignant album about personal pain and the powerful ebbs and flows of melancholy at precisely the moment that we, as a public, are more exposed to it than ever.
Self Surgery feels like I’m choking my way through the moss in a swamp, searching for an exit and instead sinking in the surrounding comfort of the mud. The prominent analog performances and fierce drumming of Gowrie are shrouded through distortion and the hum of minor synth work while the powerful but draining vocals of Chelsea Wolfe create a haunting parallax of fierce goth energy and oncoming doom. There is a sound here that is reminiscent of something, but so clouded in a diaspora of strange that it creates a very profound soundscape.
There is a powerful relevance to this album in our current lock down. In a time of mass imposed self reflection, Self surgery seeks to inform us that trauma, pain, and psychosis aren’t things that are always treated with a ‘magic bullet’ fix, but the wading through the muck and delirium of our mental and physical lock down can bear fruit to echo the thoughts of Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings. We want to avoid the pain we accumulate through years of self sabotage, abuse, and dependency but if we don’t confront it, bathe in its dreary madness, fight our feeling of ennui and waning self efficacy, we won’t find the raw power of furious energy that lies underneath. Emotional Turmoil is a powerful muse, and to dull the pain isn’t the only way to deal with it.
The tonal and tempo shifts feel like this album lives a double life, a pride and a pain. From raucous anthems screaming “MEGA BABES OF WILD ORDER” only to counter into ‘You Took Everything’ which glibly sums up a relationship as “All you ever did was give me heartache and barbiturates”. You’re being given a guided tour of Wolfe’s journey to find power through her misery, and the skeletons in her closet are laid out as bare as the trophies on her mantle.
Lyrically and tonally, it always circles back to depression. Wolfe fluctuates between power and anger, but highlighting the circling self flagellation that comes with depression. A particular standout is “Downer Surrounded by Uppers.” Blasting out of the gates with self deprivation, we start with Wolfe murmuring “Cut-up and burned, ugly and everyone knows it. I’m a circus freak in your arms. A downer surrounded by uppers.” Wolfe then screams the chorus “You take over You take everything.” The song has a powerful parallax of a driving riff and Wolfe’s powerful wails in service of lyrics that tear her shreds. Wolfe channels the pain of an abusive relationship with personal haunting quips like “Can’t sleep with your dirty memory,” surmising that circular scorn we face through breaking with codependency. These lyrics don’t seek to coddle the listener into seeing Wolfe as an idol, but accepting of her own characterizations and pain. Trying to take power of her perceived broken misplacement in a world of tired perfect things.
Mrs. Piss “Downer Surrounded by Uppers” (Lyric Video)
There’s often a fear that the overproduced rock and roll that the mass public seems transfixed with since the rise of Dan Auerbach and The Black Keys dampens the intensity of rock and roll. Rawkus instrumentals mixed to perfection in the studio, presenting what could sound like sharp rusty daggers into shiny silver spoons. Every song becomes an anthem and every guitar is so choked full of fuzz that it all bleeds into each other, like one big car commercial marathon. Self Surgery is a studio rock and roll album, to be sure, but the intent of creating a more smooth sonic aura isn’t to coddle you into bland fast food rock; it’s instead the 8th beer or second Vicodin. The element that smoothes your head as you stare into the mess in front of you, like you’re daydreaming through the flames. You feel the melancholy pain of depressive nothingness, the severe nothing that rots away your ability to feel any emotional extreme
Self Surgery draws mana from another well, doom metal. The heavy bass and droning guitars of bands like Sleep seem reoriented towards a more contained product. These aren’t 20 minute wailing guitar festivals, but the spirit of power chords trailing off into a vocal performance that follows its ambling yet profound presence is there. This is goth rock born out of stoner metal and shoegaze, crushed into a paste and given a defibrillator. At times it almost feels punk, at times it feels post punk, but the energy here consistently feels dark.
Chelsea Wolfe’s vocals hearken Kim Gordon by way of a somnambulist. She swings her vocal pendulum between talking in her sleep to death rattling screams. Her roots are far more eclectic and this informs her sound greatly. Country and Folk like Hank Williams and Towns Van Zandt, full of mystical sorrow and brief reprieves of fleeting joy, was taught to her at a young age from her father, a country musician. From there she explored classic rock like Fleetwood Mac and eventually into the less well tread and more foggy depths of Icelandic folk and doom metal. It informs this sound, as it straddles a line between so much of the powerful properties of each of these tones, conjuring a sound unique but uncanny. So close to familiar but mystifying in how it’s different.
Wolfe has rebuked her ‘Goth Queen’ status in the past, posing it’s almost a contradiction coming from a woman who used to be a massage therapist and Reiki practitioner. Perhaps more a new age healer than in the past Wikka, if we in turn shift her spiritual growth to the content of this album, the mysticism has gone to the tonal qualities of the music, while the lyrics feel far more grounded in the grizzly act of stitching yourself together metaphorically than calling upon spiritual power to do so.
Chelsea Wolfe isn’t the whole show. Miss Piss is a collaboration, and Jessie Gowrie’s influence is profound and powerful. Frequent collaborators in the past, most recently on Wolfe’s Hisspun of 2017, Miss Piss was their first truly joint venture. While visually, the two share the same space (literally) in their video for Knelt, where Gowrie’s strongest influence can be heard is in her drums.
Fast, controlled, raucous but with a mean precision, Gowrie’s drums are the beating heart of the record. Slow, deliberate and haunting, her drums can be the blips of the EKG as well. Always present though, and through thorough production on her end, Gowrie has transformed what could have been a fairly sparse sound between two collaborators into a far more rich sound. This feels like a studio metal piece but it only made it that far through her determination.
There is a collective feeling right now to always be productive. If we have free time, we have to channel it into something worthwhile. If we have sorrow we have to find the tricks to ignore it and go into work with a Cheshire grin. Everything has to build to a greater something and everything has to be in this collective effort to grow as more emotionally stable members of society. Self Surgery feels like the tales of a woman who might have tried, saw the futility of it, and got off the bus, instead searching for meaning in the foreboding, haunted woods on the side of the road.
This isn’t an album about reclaiming power. This isn’t an album about creating a broader, inclusive collective; this is an album about the individual pain that can forge us both into power and into calamity. Our internal engine of chaotic intuition. As we sit in our room shaped tombs, trying to prepare ourselves to be better drones for the world that might wait for us outside, maybe we don’t have to piss away our sadness into sourdough starter.