White Ring Gate of Grief

[Rocket Girl; 2018]

Styles: ∆, †, ▲, ‡
Others: Hallowed Cry, Chanting Wish, Night Touch, Model Sacrifice, Dark Bones (Shout out to Altis Vader’s Witch House Name Generator)

Tens of thousands of years ago, our African ancestors crossed the Red Sea between the coasts of what is now Djibouti and Yemen. This 18-mile strait, named the “Gate of Grief,” was a brutal geographical rite of passage. Geneticists recently deduced that only a single tribe survived the trek, allowing them to eventually populate Europe and the rest of the world.

White Ring members Bryan Kurkimilis and Kendra Malia have adopted the anthropological concept for their latest release, refiguring the phrase to refer to personal struggle. Suffering several issues that continued to hinder music production, Gate of Grief started to crystallize after the inclusion of vocals from Adina Viarengo. Following the EP Black Earth That Made Me, the band’s first release in eight years is both a time capsule and an egress from the confinements of the witch house genre to which they’re affixed.

Witch house began as a microgenre in 2008. A postmodern bricolage of rave, goth, and industrial music, witch house was, like many modern artifacts, empowered by the internet. The inclusion of occult symbols such as triangles and crosses in artist and song names made finding the music through traditional web searches difficult — just what the scene wanted. Lyrics processed to the point of incomprehensibility further heightened the music’s mysteriousness and inherent creepiness. Although the press was divided about witch house’s artistic merits, ire was often palpable and even deserved at times (Salem’s disastrous SXSW show being a particular nadir). Reappropriation of witch house’s tropes in the form of memes helped people work through its ambiguous music and visuals. Memes, however, have shelf lives, and witch house suffered from cultural fatigue in 2013 and faded from mainstream discourse. Today, the subculture lumbers on in the dimmest corners of the internet, supported by dedicated producers and listeners.

This context is crucial in framing White Ring’s reemergence and is exaggerated by the band’s meager output. Despite their influence in the genre, the band only released an EP and an assortment of other tracks during witch house’s heydey. This makes Gate of Grief not only White Ring’s most substantial release, but also their full-length debut. After eight years, is a witch house album arriving too late to the séance? How does this year’s witch house differ, if at all, from its original incarnation?

Gate of Grief is not a departure from witch house, but it’s not a tired genre retread either. As its producers reference their musical antecedents, a dialogue about a future for the sound emerges, one that’s only available after years of distance.

The best examples involve the first two tracks. The first is the wonky “Heavy Self Alienation,” an assemblage of glitchy beats that smother a smattering of vocal fragments. It’s all the more disconcerting for the song’s sudden volume spikes. The track is dirty, angry, and a gutsy experiment for an opener. It’s also a preamble to the veritable goth banger “Leprosy,” one of the album’s outstanding cuts. Reminiscent of recent Alice Glass, it incorporates several classic witch house elements: garbled vocals crying out both in pain and menace, distorted percussion, and spook-rave synths. Exciting in all its graveyard decrepitude.

The album settles into a less aggressive groove with “Angels” and “Fields of Hate” in close succession, evoking Salem’s most ethereal tracks. Faint, reverberated whispering propels the downtempo “Low” that froths to a ravey climax — just don’t try to understand the lyrics. “Puppy,” featuring Kurkimilis’s howling vocals, will be blasted at the next mausoleum break-in, though it’s a half-formed idea that stalls in its short duration.

Aside from “Heavy Self Alienation,” Viarengo’s vocals begin on the interlude “Chained” and continue for the rest of the album. Her voice is treated to similar techniques as Malia’s, which make the vocalists nearly identical, a missed opportunity for exploring Viarengo’s range.

Besides “Leprosy,” “Nothing” is the band’s other single, a confounding lo-fi one at that, where snippets of vocals and melodies struggle to be heard against a foregrounded 808. At least the song feels sequenced properly as the album progresses, leading toward the industrial dirge “Lasts In,” which itself pairs well with the minatory narco-groove of “Amerika (Lord of the Flies).” This is handed off to “Home of the Brave,” a moody “taking a drive by myself at night” track and a standout in the latter half. Given the average witch houser’s admiration for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the show’s triumphant reboot last year, an homage is almost inevitable: Gate of Grief concludes with a hazy, major key reference to the series.

The harrowing route that is the Gate of Grief is a parable for witch house, a niche if there ever was one. Time will tell if the genre will make it through that musical Red Sea strait toward more fertile pastures, the way dubstep or trance have established themselves. On some level, White Ring is aware of this. Gate of Grief puts the band back on the map, and while it sometimes stumbles, it nevertheless continues to slink around in the shadows, cackling.

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