Sister Wolf is a three-piece rock band that initially met playing blues at Sarah Lawrence College. Now, they’re taking the stories and psyches of several comic book characters in Villians, their first full-length album (available to stream on SoundCloud now). Made up of Steph Wolf, Chris Atkins, and Matt Weitman, the band cites both comics and feminism as primary influences on the record.
The songs aren’t inspired by comics in the same way that, say, Harry and the Potters are inspired by teen wizards. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I did a first listen—would the songs be explicitly about superheroes, or would they be more esoterically connected? It turns out, there’s a little of both. The big name name-dropping happens mostly in their titles: “The Killing Joke,” “Dr. Destiny,” and “Swamp Thing” all grace their tracklisting. Batwoman also inspired “Alice” and “Mary, Mary, Mary.” There’s no bright tights and red capes to be found here, as Sister Wolf is only interested in exploring the darker canons, like Sandman.
For me, listening to Sister Wolf was a weirdly a nostalgic experience. Many of the bands I listened to in high school and college were women-fronted rock bands, steeped in punk, grunge, and riot grrl. Sister Wolf is definitely on the harder edge of than most—Steph Wolf has a throaty voice with a controlled growl that gives their songs a certain extra drama. She has a sound and a style that’s an amalgam of Courtney Love, Marissa Paternoster (Screaming Females), and some Brody Dalle (The Distillers) thrown in.
The band can resemble Hole at their darkest with rough chords and angry choruses. But the band’s bluesy background also comes through in some of the songs—“Civilized” has a guitar line that’s more Southern rock than garage metal. Wolf is plaintive and soulful asking “Can I drink all your disappointed thoughts/so I can taste not being the only one?” before sliding right into howling “I’m an animal, I’m an animal.”
The songs on Villians has narrators who are disaffected, dissatisfied, and searching for something. “Mary, Mary, Mary,” inspired by Batwoman‘s take on the classic legend of Bloody Mary, has Wolf singing as Mary, commanding “Say my name!” to summon her. “Alice” has the most direct interpretation of a comic book, describing Alice, the high madame of the Religion of Crime from Batwoman: Elegy, and how she relates to Kate Kane. Out of all the songs that explicitly reference comics, I think this is the only one that may be difficult to derive meaning from as a non-comics reader; the other songs on the album could be taken at more symbolic level even without knowing the influence behind it.
Some of the songs, like “Armadillo,” have fairly easy to interpret lyrics—a song opening with “Hey there, mister misogyny” doesn’t need to rely on Gothic imagery. But while “Swamp Thing” describes a less-than-hospitable environment, where a monster stakes her claim, Sister Wolf is telling a darker story. “Arachnophobia” seems to deal with mental illness or a painful secret, and “Yearlings and Dearlings” gets even more Gothic with lines like “Set adrift, on a river of blood/Child from my chest/Mother you taught me to be so afraid/Mama I worry the world is just a taste of the grave.” The lyrics can get melodramatic, but the melodies work to keep the songs some becoming too overwrought or over-serious, and of course an album called Villains has to explore the dark sides of things. There’s also a good sense of balance for where to use a scream or a growl, so the listener never feels like it’s drawn on too long in one song.
What I liked most about Sister Wolf was that on a cursory listen, they felt like they’d be right at home near my Babes in Toyland albums, with a chunky guitar sound and angry lyrics. But their sound is layered enough that it’s not stale or derivative of the influences they wear on their sleeve. They manage to hearken to a sound I didn’t realize I’d missed quite so much while still sounding fresh. The band also has a musicality to them that can sometimes be lost behind a crunchy guitar—Chris Atkins has some impressive guitar solos, and Wolf’s sound has polish to it that suggest more musical training than your average guitar rocker even under the grunge production. “Bother” has some clever guitar work that sounds like it could be a theme from a Sleater-Kinney song. The more I listened to Villains, the more I found in it’s soundscapes, from musical homages and influences to interesting twists in the lyrics. It’s a good, cohesive baseline sound that stands up to multiple listening, and the album feels like Sister Wolf has only begun putting their own unique twists on things. I look forward to seeing what they twist up next.