Review : Salem - King Night
PitchforkSalem trade in apathy. In an article for Butt magazine last year, band member John Holland copped to a past lifestyle of heavy drug use and teenage prostitution-- then he offered the interviewer some speed. The band was featured in The New York Times Arts section's fall preview this year, and only Holland could be bothered to wake up on time for the interview. When Times writer Ben Ratliff pressed him on the lyrics to early single "Trapdoor", Holland replied, "It doesn't really matter to me whether people know what the lyrics are or not." Even when XLR8R's Brandon Ivers recently asked Salem about their much-blogged-about disaster of a FADER Fort appearance at last year's SXSW-- a performance that could be featured in the dictionary as the definition of "not giving a shit"-- band members Heather Marlatt and Jack Donoghue claimed not to have seen the video, while Holland later stated about the band's live presence, "I don't even care. I totally don't."
So it's safe to say that Salem aren't concerned that the slowed-down, culturally mishmashed electronic music on their debut, King Night-- referred to by many as witch house, drag, haunted house, rape gaze, and so on-- has its share of supporters and detractors alike, and has inspired endless arguments about authenticity, cultural sensitivity, and whether "witch house" is a pretty stupid fucking name for a genre, anyway. But when you actually listen to King Night, it's easy to be amazed that these dickheads made a record so interesting and sonically detailed. Their early original material and Gucci Mane remixes spawned a legion of imitators who attempted to replicate the formula with shoddy craftsmanship; King Night, accordingly, finds Salem pushing their sound far enough to create artistic distance from the rest of the pack.
They pull this off mostly by way of increased fidelity, which, thanks to the mixing talents of Dave Sardy (Marilyn Mason, Oasis), teases the sonic depth out of these songs. The title track didn't need its "O Holy Night"-lifted melody to sound like it was recorded in an Austrian cathedral, but there's that chorus, their voices being abused by the debris launched in the air by the track's low-end explosions. Album centerpiece and highlight "Release Da Boar" starts out with a city-street pulse and midnight tones, and slowly opens to reveal a brutally beautiful void where Marlatt's dead-eyed vocals hover in an amniotic haze. Even "Redlights"-- aka the "FADER Fort YouTube Video Song"-- is lent a spacey atmosphere, its slow burn not too far off from vintage Slumberland noise pop....full text
OnethirtybpmIt’s a proven fact that a good back-story can make all the difference to a band promoting themselves or a new record. For example, everyone that listened to Bon Iver’s debut album knew before they’d heard it that it was recorded whilst Justin Vernon was living hermit-like in a cabin in the woods following a particularly rough break-up, whilst the White Stripes released their first two albums almost anonymously before the world cottoned onto the hazy nature of the supposed siblings’ real relationship. Everyone loves a bit of human interest or – better still – controversy, but as far as rock & roll myths go, they don’t come much more sordid than the tale of a teenage junkie forced into gay prostitution to feed his habit and eventually persuaded to start a band as a means of staying out of jail and, more importantly, alive. With its “witch-trial” connections, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate name for a group of kids that a lot of people with more “old-fashioned” views than their own would no doubt happily see drowned than Michigan trio Salem.
The greatest story in the world wouldn’t count for much, though, if the music wasn’t up to scratch, and thankfully for John Holland, the noise he has been producing with former sometime-lover Jack Donoghue and longtime friend Heather Martlatt over the last couple of years is just as interesting, and twice as nasty as the HBO series-worthy circumstances behind it’s creation. Taking equal amounts of inspiration from gothic 80s indie bands like the Cocteau Twins, black metal, Southern hip-hop and dubstep, the Salem sound is something truly original, and one that has spawned a host of imitators since they burst onto the scene in 2008 with their bluntly titled Yes, I Smoke Crack EP. This newly-minted genre has already attracted many labels, but whether you call it witch house, drag, screwgaze or deathstep (ok, I made that last one up), debut album King Night leaves little doubt that Salem do it better than the rest.
Whilst the album sticks to a pretty rigid musical formula throughout, the trio take turns handling vocal duties, with the different voices leading the songs down various forks off the main path. Martlatt’s dreamy sigh adds an air of chilly serenity to a handful of tracks, whilst on a number of others Donoghue’s rapping is stretched out and pitched down in a “chopped ‘n’ screwed” style. Elsewhere, Holland favours a more typical indie-boy approach, his thin, detached moan owing as much to the likes of Bradford Cox as Martlatt and Donoghue do to Liz Frazer and DJ Screw respectively. But it’s the monstrous noise that rises up behind the vocals and threatens to drown them out completely that is the real draw here. Skipping, snare-heavy trap beats and cavernous, distorted bass engulf strobing synths and howling feedback, while sampled explosions and car-crash sound FX fly around like rockets. Picture the future described in the Terminator films, with armies of evil machines marching over human skulls on a post-apocalyptic battlefield, and just try to imagine a more fitting soundtrack....full text
ResidentadvisorOverzealous journalists seem eager to run with this fuzzy idea of "witch house," positioning Salem as the progenitors. While placing the Chicago trio at the head of this supposed movement isn't incorrect if we're going to assume that it is, in fact, a movement or a genre, the suffocating dungeon atmospheres of Salem's debut King Night seem to be on another wavelength entirely. While the spate of recent interviews have been less than illuminating, their reference points are clear: early shoegaze and southern hip-hop. It's what they do with these influences that is so intriguing. No matter what you call it (the band themselves have used the term "drag"), it's something new, something different.
The songs of Salem are neither typically structured pop songs nor dance songs; they float by on ominous electrified storm clouds, made up primarily of guitars, synths and drum machines. The sung vocals are usually obscured, either entirely wordless or slurred beyond recognition, and they tend to blur as wallpaper along with the winds of decaying synth that blow through each track. That's where the shoegaze influence comes in, whether it's through the filtered moans of "Release Da Boar" or the ethereal chants of "Frost." The only thing allowed to emerge from the lumbering haze of abrasive distortion and overloaded bass are the insistent drum machines, which often feel as if they're antagonizing the tracks rather than anchoring them. Without warning they shoot like pummeling jackhammers and then pull themselves apart, letting a song fall into the rapidly-widening cracks in between; the percussive interplay on a track like "Hound" is easily this music's most entrancing and fascinating aspect.
There's one other thing you should know about this band: They rap. Getting a trio of somnolent white druggies to rap over slo-mo beats seems like a hysterically bad idea, but lo and behold, the rap tracks are where the band finds its greatest success. It's a brilliant move: The druggier side of southern rap and its chop-and-screw mentality sits comfortably with Salem's foreboding soundscapes. They believe in it, too—these aren't kids making fun of gangster rap, they're living it in their own fucked up way. The raps are slowed down to narcotic extremes that make them believably menacing and dead serious, exemplified in the languid drawl of "Trapdoor" which becomes infectious through constant hypnotic repetition....full text
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