As the amateur critics and self-styled journos of the music world continue to spawn and respawn ’long the fertile plains and pastures of the blogosphere, so wax and multiply their most prolific offspring: the sub-subgenre. The past few years alone have seen the vogue of search engine keywords like nu rave, chillwave, shitgaze, shit-fi, glow-fi, et al., in addition to the recent rebranding of more familiar terms (electro, dancehall, house). Although taxonomy’s purpose is to compartmentalize things and make them easier to find or discuss, it’s getting pretty hard to keep up: the result of either the music obsessive’s flailing attempts to keep track of the torrential downpour of new music in the internet age or the music obsessive’s compensation for the .torrential ease of acquiring and hipping-self-to of new music in the internet age. Even just a touch over a decade ago, it took serious man-hours (money, even) simply to stay up on all the latest bands, and while fans made basic distinctions like “alt.country” or “shoegaze,” they were all just as commonly blanketed under a single catchall: “indie.” More recently, even lamentably rare imports and aborted pressings — stuff that previously could’ve taken several months and a paycheck to track down — can be yours to hear with just a few clicks and about 20 minutes of patience.
But while it’s now easy as fuckall to stay up on whatever’s current, it’s become a real bitch to properly tag it all. It seems easiest, then, not to treat any of these terms as reliable descriptors (they certainly aren’t), but rather to tackle ’em on a case-by-case basis. Today’s case is Salem, and the sub-subgenre popularly used to describe them is “witch-house”: one they’re credited with having birthed themselves.
As the Chicago trio defines it on their debut album King Night, witch-house is a curious blend of aesthetics. They adopt the slow-mo, dranked-up rap styles of the deep south’s chopped and screwed tradition, as well as that hazy form of remix’s penchant for molasses synths and stuttered, tape-skipping beats. Likewise, there’s a lo-fi friction at work in many of the backing tracks, not unlike DJ Screw’s first couple hundred mixtapes but most akin to the myriad -wave trends of today. The lyrics are obscured by all kinds of vocal processing, but seems to be mostly a stock composite of drug-stoked swagger and kill-you-bitch horrorcore. The beats’ basic kit sound is as tinny-spare as your typical snap music single, and haunted choirs half-emerge from the backdrop to spook things up every now and then. Sometimes Salem really layer their shit on and push the tracks into the red, making for a pretty roughly textured and overwhelming sound; other times they keep it lithe and ethereal, like the more synth-orchestral turns on Crystal Castles’ recent album.
On paper, then, Salem-brand witch-house sounds pretty awesome. In practice, however, it’s a bit less so. There’s a bleary aimlessness clouding most of the particularly sizzurp-soused tracks, and a couple of the more densely distorted and layered compositions just sound like jumbled hell. The whole thing amounts to far more style than substance, and one can hear the brittle potential of the band’s earlier singles slowly crumble over the course of the record. Some of King Night might appreciate a bit once winter hits, as this could make good mood music for driving with the windows down in the freezing cold. In any event, the replay value here is scant.
There’s one glorious exception, though, and that’s the lead single/opener/title track. Preluded briefly by a Blair Witch-style snippet of the Barney & Friends theme song, “King Night” explodes with a doomsday symphony of synths and a choir that sounds as if practicing for a recital at the end of the world. It’s one of the better songs of the year, and as it’d make a fine match for the trailer of any major blockbuster aspiring to be the next 300, it’s likely to become the one thing for which Salem will be remembered. And honestly, that beats the hell out of being some dreamwave band.