I was 15 the first time I heard Rudimentary Peni. The album was Cacophony, the groups’ 1989 tribute to the work of legendary author H.P. Lovecraft. Long known in both anarcho and deathrock circles for their quasi-philosophical attitudes and jet-black sense of humor, Rudimentary Peni were exactly the right sort of mutant evil to make a teenaged gothic punk’s ears perk up. The absurdist, stream-of-conciousness lyrics spat by Nick Blinko vibed perfectly with Lovecraft’s cosmicistic fiction—furiously indifferent, evocative of subtle and incomprehensible horrors and a decaying society.
Like Rudimentary Peni, Chelsea Wolfe has shaped herself into an important figure in dark, literate underground music, one for a new generation of black-clad fans young and old to latch on to. Her sophomore album Apokalypsis skillfully showcased her ability to blend her haunting voice and various influences—from folk and post-punk to black metal—into something as monstrous as it was beautiful, and her live performances stand as some of the most enrapturing I’ve seen. Though Prayer For The Unborn is her second foray into covering Blinko’s work, it’s the first one dealt with as a true record release, lending it more of an impact…not to mention that the EP was recorded in the same studio as the originals, by the same sound engineer. A bold idea to begin with, but what truly makes this a special release is the fact that these are more than covers: they’re re-imaginings.
Had Wolfe approached this in a more simplistic way, Prayer… might have been little more than a curiosity—yet she dismantles and reassembles the songs in a manner that still shows reverence while advancing their moods in wholly new directions. More incredibly, she makes Blinko’s lyrics not only intelligible, but beautiful. The sneering harshness of “Echo” and “Dissolution / Rehearsal For Mortality” have been stripped down into minimal slices of blues-infected Americana, hypnotically-plucked guitar and sparse percussion with Wolfe’s voice drifting over it as if in a dream. Lyrics like “It matters not that I did seek to conquer fear and vanquish pain. For victory belongs to grief, so into tears dissolve in vain,” are spun like crystals from her throat, revealing hidden wells of sorrowful strength previously buried. Remnants of the hardcore still exist, of course; while her acoustic album Unknown Rooms may have showcased a ‘softer’ side, Wolfe was never one to avoid creating clamor. “Black On Gold / Sickening For Something” carries plenty of the shivering snarls inherent in the Cacophony / Death Church classics, but it’s the album’s title track that showcases her true power. As the drums pound and the grime-covered guitar swaggers in like a murderous pimp, Wolfe lays down a soul-searing howl suitable for the blackest mass, ending abruptly on a wash of feedback.
More than simply a covers album, Prayer For The Unborn is a fascinating new look at the work of one of the weirdest punk bands of the ’80s, seen through the eyes of one of the most intriguing artists of the Now. Challenging, unique and beautiful, it exists as a tribute to an inspiration, but it will surely continue to inspire just as much on its own.~
Prayer For The Unborn is available now through Latitudes.