BURN THE WITCH: HOW SALEM AND WITCH HOUSE SHAPED THE SOUND OF A DECADE

In the beginning were Daniel Lopatin and James Ferraro, the old and broken radio of the New Weird America in the late 00s, shaped to allucinate with visions of heavenly beaches and palms, like they came straight out of Miami Vice or some other 80s television series, giving rise to a whole movement that, following the lesson of Ariel Pink in the early 2000s, over the years witnessed the alternating of the brief chillwave era, to the rise of both Oneothrix Point Never, as one of the main acts of a whole decade, and, in parallel, James Ferraro, as a reference point for a new intelligent digital music. To define this world of nostalgia, which will end up permeating a substantial part of music since then, we used to resort to different words like “vaporwave”, “glo-fi”, “chillwave”, a specific subgenre for each one, but for a general approximation the scottish journalist David Keenan coined the term “hypnagogic pop”, referring to the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep. Therefore, on the heels of the British hauntological theory to describe the music of Burial or Boards of Canada, here reveal a new manifestation made in USA of the replacement of the future with the virtual, timeless past. A built up, non existent memory, product of the virtual representation, which, in this case, is even limitless and more ecstatic, as well as, on the other hand, more hopeless. Furthermore, a story about ghosts, dreams and memories cannot do without references to eerie, occult and death.

 

“2009 was the beginning of the ‘witch house’ style. Also known as ‘black house’ or ‘occult house.’ Coined and popularized by SHAMS and myself, two practitioners and advocators of the witch house movement. Mark our words, 2010 will be straight up witchy. Check the fabulously dark “In Your Eyes” by Denver/Amsterdam band Modern Witch, “Pillow Talk” by SHAMS, or the music video for “Goth Star” for examples of the witch house aesthetic.”

This excerpt from a 2009 Pitchfork interview to Travis Egedy AKA Pictureplane is reported to be the first time the term witch house became public, used to indicate artists from the Denver scene as the already mentioned, or cult acts like SHAMS, but immediately after, witch house began to refer to a whole new generation of ephemeral DIY projects for use and consumption of Myspace, Youtube and the early Soundcloud and Bandcamp users, supported by labels like Tri Angle or Disaro.

While bands like HEALTH and Crystal Castles had already established as the new thing, capable of catalizing the attention of hipsters and whoever had that punk attitude, passing from the ex fans of the Myspace scene with all its emo, screamo and metalcore drifts, to the indie kids whit delusions of post punk, a new movement was emerging bearing a brand new rarefied atmosphere, where, like witches, almost everyone who was able to download a pirated software of Fruity Loops, Ableton Live or whatever DAW it was, could actually manipulate their own reality. A generation of white people who grew up listening to hip hop was finally able to make beats without an MPC, at the time of big room house, while Tumbrl was raising, with all its baggage of gothic revival and subliminal interest for chaos magic. The music and the aesthetic of artists like Pictureplane, Modern Witch, crim3s, plus monikers more explicitly related to the occult like Balam Acab and White Ring, up to the cryptically esoteric oOoOO, GL▲SS †33†H and ///▲▲▲\\\, was the hybrid product of all this messed up murky nostalgia, love for geometry and lo fi meltin pot of dark elements, on the wave of an exciting noise scene (suffice it to say that Wavves‘ ear damaging first album was such a cult that year). Triangles, dreamy reverb, club drums and DIY attitude were the keywords of this movement, but was with SALEM (or, at the time, S4LEM) that witch house reached its zeitgeist.

 

John Holland was born in a rural zone of Michigan and there started having heavy drug problems during high school, also being a teenage prostitute. Then he attended college in Chicago, where meeting the younger Jack Donoghue sort of saved him. The two were making music together, first footwork and juke, then, with the arrival of Heather Marlatt, mixing southern hip hop with all the DJ Screw‘ chopped & screwed experiments (trap was not the name for the mainstream still) and Cocteau Twins kind of dreamy melodies. Of course, the story, which seems to come straight out of “Boys don’t cry” with Chloe Sevigny, plus the extreme coolness of the three, took the critics to identify SALEM as the glossy peak of a movement which they were struggling to take seriously. The fact is that SALEM, along with a name so kitsch and evocative to be absolutely great, strongly pushed the borders of the microgenre, also insisting on what could have been perceived as pure trash, with trance nostalgia, booed live performances or explicit interviews like this. As every self-respecting punk icon, they were able to come with all their package bigger than music, conjugating the usual nihilism & attitude thing in an unprecedented way and, above all, making it real. Even their first EP, “Yes, I smoke crack” dated 2008, was so ahead of their time and anticipated in full the sound of GothBoiClique, Drain Gang, or even Billie Eilish, for one thing, not to mention the influence on East European artists, still found in the music of  IC3PEAK and Tommy Cash. Try to listen to “Snakes” and not think of Lil Peep or, even more, of Wicca Phase Spring Aeternal. But is their first album “King Night”, along with the following EP “I’m Still in the Night”, that the music of the trio became so seminal for the current electronic avantgarde scene. Desolate landscapes, shoegaze wall of sounds, rave synths, giant kicks and noise from some accident, a mix of trance and bombing, where Donoghue raps like Lil Wayne at the end of the world. As far as even gamechanging hip hop driven producers like Clams Casino and Shlohmo were products of the witch house scene, the rap element has always been the distinctive feature of SALEM in the scene itself, while other artists were more focused on dreamy female vocals. Some accuse SALEM of cultural appropriation, but I think that the brief but intense story of witch house was nothing but a twist of every influence from black music in something good for punks and hipsters, something completely new that sounded shitty and hardcore, and at the same time could be the soundtrack for the legendary teen drama Skins, while, precisely in 2010, with “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” Kanye West ratyfied a new softer course in mainstream hip hop, and, on the other side, Death Grips’ Exmilitary was yet to come.

 

Of course, we’re talking about some of the most iconic acts of the last decade, and it goes without saying that something so cryptic to be, at that time, even difficoult to be taken seriously and, at the same time, extremely fascinating as witch house, faded away at the very moment it was exploding, an istant swan song which resulted in some misunderstandings, like people mistaking Crystal Castles as part of the scene, when actually, their only album clearly influenced was their last with Alice Glass, “(III)”, of the period they were hanging around with crim3s. While so many artists, from 2012 till the last years, started to draw on the legacy of their imagery, Salem just disappeared. Apart from a pair of remixes and a (“still unpaid”, as he said) contribution of Donoghue to the production of Kanye West’ “Yeezus”, one of the first bigger example of SALEM’ influence, the Midwest trio, turned into a duo with the only Holland and Donoghue, retired, with alternating bad luck, shitty jobs, incommunicability and an album forever under costruction. But, for an incredible cycle of karma, it has been just the meeting with Henry Laufer AKA Shlohmo, one of the most faithful continuer of what witch house started, to help the two closing the album and putting it out.

The fact that “Fires in Heaven” came out during this terrible year is just tremendously perfect. The hype mounted after the “Stay Down” mixtape appeared on Youtube in September, followed closely by the first single “Starfall” which, needless to say, brought all the kids mourning for Lil Peep on their toes, with its devastated pads, emotional trance synths and extremely sad lyrics. A trap ballad accompanied by a video of the two storm chasing in a car. Global surveillance is, instead, the subject of the video for “Red River”, where the slow rap draws a sort of biblical imagery, theme that returned when the album came out in the end of October, with that title and an artwork depicting an angel in flames in heaven, with the devil hidden behind it. “I would never claim no prophecy cause I know mans too small for it”: these words from the ones who were able to be so unapologetically raw, to accurately predict, with a brand new language, the deep desolation of a decade that has seen a new rise of fascism, the worsening of the environmental disaster and the loneliness of a whole generation, in the year when everything reached its worse climax due to the pandemic, these same words are indicative of the entire world of SALEM. The opening track is the ironic “Capulets”, actual manifesto rapped with tough attitude on Prokofiev’ “Dance of the Knights”. “Money came along problems, shit got me like hell naw // Ask me what I’m doing with my life, ain’t shit to tell ya’ll // They selling these, though, we don’t really need those”; “I don’t see the road, eyes closed, I’ma let it fly.

The album reaches its climax of desolation in the hallucinated “Wings”, lament on a quiet and minimal alternating of psychedelic arpeggiator and dissonant synths, which turns out to be particularly cathartic to listen in these surreal nights, when the streets are empty and all you can hear is the sound of the ambulance. Instead, “Old Gods” is a moment of liberation, the only track which gives a glimpse of peace trough a chord progression which culminates in the yell of the hook  “I met god and asked him what he wants and silence was the answer til I’ve gone. Heaven is a place out here with me, so burn those wings and let us all be free.”
If Shlohmo contribution to the production gives a new luster to the sound of SALEM, well matched with their wasted pop attitude for songwriting, the instrumental “Braids” carries the baton of that original ruined lo fi noise. Finally, with the same jaded irony of the opening track, in a Moby mood the refrain “it’s not much of a life you’re living” closes an album about fallen angels left in the lurch, who just feel free in the power of choosing their own heaven, blind in the traffic but always keeping it real, far from the bullshit, the post truths and the fascist surveillance, far from a world which already collapsed but that refuses to expire because we are too distracted to watch it die. Life is out there, chasing storms and feeling the death. As Donoghue says: “I think we, in many maladaptive ways, have sought for surrender. And in many beautiful ways, sought surrender.”

Unfortunately, but also ironically, when the album came out Holland was serving a 30-day sentence for unknown charges. From the 2008 financial crisis to the pandemic, from speedball to some accident to put you in jail for a month, artists installing windows for a living while a lot of others made money drawning in with both hands in their sound, a circle which closes, with all the elements of a story so unique and iconic to seem fake,  which witnesses how SALEM have always been some of the rarest and realest cool kids in the game.

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