Try A Little Tenderness: Dark Folk Solo Artists As An Introduction to Metal

We get it. Not everyone loves metal like we do. The harsh vocals, heavy distorted guitars and blast beats can often be a turn off. But even the most hardened metalheads didn’t start their musical journey listening to the most brutal of death metal bands. We had to be slowly eased into the genre, beginning with something accessible before diving deep into pure aggression.

Below, I will list three metal-adjacent solo artists who are adored in the metal scene. They have released material that is soothing, moody and beautiful, yet something dark lurks just beneath the surface. I will be recommending albums that are easy on the ears and, in any other circumstance, would be considered to be the complete opposite of heavy metal. Once you become accustomed to their voices and their style, you can then transition to some of their heavier releases and explore their collaborations with other metal artists.

All three artists are being represented by Sargent House, a label that has signed other artists who have been pushing the boundaries of loud music, such as post-metal band Russian Circles, anti-punk supergroup the Armed and blackgaze band Deafheaven. If you enjoy the sound of the Sirens of Sargent (somebody patent that!), then consider listening to their labelmates Ionna Gika and Alto Arc.

Chelsea Wolfe

Chelsea Wolfe is a gothic folk singer-songwriter from California. Her voice can be described as angelic, with a hint of pain. She dropped her first album The Grime and the Glow in 2010, but I wouldn't start there as an introduction; her experimentation with voice and guitar distortion might be jarring upon first listen.

Instead, I would suggest starting with her latest album, Birth of Violence, released in 2019. The sound of the record is intimate, atmospheric and at times, orchestral. There are some incredible harmonies on it, and you really feel like you’re being transported to another world. The songs were born out of the loneliness Wolfe experienced while on the road, a feeling any touring artist could relate to.

If you like what you hear, try listening to Pain Is Beauty next. Wolfe solidifies her style in this 2013 release, yet leaves the door open for future explorations. On the record following that, Abyss, Wolfe brings in elements of industrial. If you still want more, then you can tackle Hiss Spun, the heaviest of her solo records, wherein she weaves in harsh vocals and a drumming style typically heard in doom metal.

Once you’ve devoured her solo discography, you can then move onto her collaborations. Chelsea Wolfe has lent her voice on various songs, including “Funeral” by black metal band Myrkur, “Night People” by Deafheaven, and “Memorial” by Russian Circles. She also did a side project called Mrs. Piss with Jess Gowrie, drummer of stoner metal band Horseneck. Their album Self-Surgery was one of my favourite albums from 2020. Last year, Chelsea Wolfe joined forces with mathcore pioneers Converge and Cave In frontman Steve Brodsky to release Bloodmoon: I. Her soft vocals provide a stark contrast to the anguished shrieks of Converge’s Jacob Bannon, though Brodsky’s vocals help bridge that gap.

Keep an eye out for Wolfe’s future projects, including providing the soundtrack to Ti West’s upcoming A24 slasher X. You can already hear her unsettling cover of the 1918 Arthur Fields song “Oui Oui Marie.” 

Emma Ruth Rundle

Hailing from Portland, Emma Ruth Rundle has previously played in bands like Nocturnes and Marriages, but has made a name for herself with her solo work. 

I highly recommend starting with her latest album Engine of Hell. Rundle plays acoustic guitar, piano and occasionally strings to complement her gentle singing. Her voice sounds like it’s up close, like she is playing right in front of you at a coffee house. She takes a stripped-down approach compared to her previous releases. The inspiration for the album came to her when she had to spend some time in a mental hospital to recover from an addiction that she had developed on tour. You can follow up by listening to her 2014 debut Some Heavy Ocean. Her voice is a bit more distant on this and the sound is a lot bigger, as if she’s playing in a church, with a symphony behind her.

From there, you can move onto her 2018 album On Dark Horses, which brings in guitar distortion and thunderous percussion. I had the chance to see Emma Ruth Rundle play most of that album live, when she was opening up for Cult of Luna, though it was tough hearing her in a room full of rowdy metalheads.

She currently plays in post-rock group Red Sparowes, along with Bryant Clifford Meyer of post-metal legends Isis. Recently, she collaborated with Baton Rouge sludge metal band Thou, and released May Our Chambers Be Full in 2020, followed by The Helm of Sorrow, which features a cover of “Hollywood” by The Cranberries.

Appropriately, last year Emma Ruth Rundle and Chelsea Wolfe put out a track together called “Anhedonia.” Rundle’s smokey voice blends so well with Wolfe’s soprano vocals. Later this week, Emma Ruth Rundle will be releasing an EP called Orpheus Looking Back, which will include previously unreleased material from her Engine of Hell sessions.

Lingua Ignota

We now come to my favourite of the three artists, Lingua Ignota, also known as Kristin Hayter, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who is not afraid to push her style to strange and new frontiers. Hayter describes her music as “survivor anthems,” having grappled with experiences of domestic violence. Her voice can convey a world of emotions, from sorrowful to vengeful.

Her latest album SINNER GET READY explores religious themes as she reconnects to her Catholic upbringing. The songs were written while she was recovering from a traumatic event, both physically and mentally, and take inspiration from the religious history of rural Pennsylvania. On the record, she integrates traditional instrumentation, but plays them in a dissonant fashion, giving off an eerie feeling. She sings in a sombre tone and at times, her voice sounds like it’s on the edge of breaking. On the second track, “I WHO BEND THE TALL GRASSES,” Hayter wails and growls, a small taste of her heavier material.

If you’re feeling bold, you can work your way backwards through her discography, from CALIGULA (my favourite record from 2019), to All Bitches Die and ending with LET THE EVIL OF HIS OWN LIPS COVER HIM. The songs on these are slow grinding, with industrial noise and her blood-curdling screams that you can feel in the pit of your soul, bookended with haunting classical moments and choral harmonies.

Lingua Ignota also features her vocals on tracks such as “Sickly Heart of Sand” by experimental metal duo The Body and “Armory of Obsidian Glass” by grindcore outfit Full of Hell. Having made these connections, Hayter formed an experimental noise project called Sightless Pit with Lee Buford of the Body and Full of Hell’s Dylan Walker, releasing their album Grave of a Dog in 2020.

Hayter has an impressive output. If you look up her Bandcamp profile, you’ll find demos, noise experiments and harrowing re-imaginings of songs like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Eminem’s “Kim.”

Chris the Frog is the host of Sewer Spewer, a chaotic mix of punk, metal and noise from the undergrounds of Montreal, Canada and around the world, which airs on CJLO every Monday at noon.