Dreams in the Witch House

"...bonding over triangles, crosses and spaced out sans serif fonts"

In April, Salem was the coolest band in the world. Their Water and Yes I Smoke Crack EPs have garnered them taste maker fans like Diplo of Mad Decent and Fader Magazine. As their first big show, a marquee SXSW performance, loomed, the buzz in the air was pretty much white noise.

Then SXSW came around, and they performed… kind of. The crowd seemed to expect grandiose club music a la the distended Salem remix of Gucci Mane’s “My Shadow.” They certainly didn’t expect Salem’s near-catatonic performance, which consisted of lead John Holland rambling catatonically drugged-up rhymes into a microphone while keyboardist Heather Marlatt laconically smoked cigarettes in the corner of the stage, playing a few keys every now and then.

“All these words that I say, they don’t mean shit. They don’t mean shit ‘cause I ain’t shit,” mumbled Holland. Not even the most ardent Salem fans could deny the “performance” was an abject disaster. Many decided Salem was some kind of practical joke, an elaborate fraud to trick those buying into hype over talent.

Then some months passed, time healed a few wounds and Salem released a new single. It was called “King Night,” and it was the title track of a LP that was released late September to great fanfare. It sounded like its title: majestic and dark. A return to apocalyptic form.

The single conveniently dropped right as the G20 took place in Toronto. It was the perfect soundtrack to the popular footage of broken windows, riot shields and burning cars. Hip young video editors at news agencies caught on—“King Night” was featured on multiple apocalyptic news montages. Suddenly, Salem was back; their SXSW performance a weird blip in popular memory.

But now Salem has competition. Buzz has been building all year for a new breed of musician following in their wake—“Salem’s lot” if you will. These acts are largely collected around a few prominent new labels: Disaro, Tri Angle, Bathetic and Fright. Among them: oOoOO, Pink Priest, Mater Suspiria Vision and Balam Acab.

Critics have looked for a number of terms to capture this new sound, and two have emerged: “witch house” and “drag.” But not all of Salem’s lot follows this formula. Many acts have exclusively white-people influences: the neo-gothic Tearist and White Ring, and the synthy Fright label. Mater Suspiria Vision prefers to mutilate ‘90s club standards for their popular Zombie Rave mixtape series. William Cody Watson, who genre-hops as Pink Priest, cites Three 6 Mafia and Prurient as equal influences. Watson is sceptical about any sort of musical cohesion present in witch house:

“These bands can sound similar, of course, but one band may be more on the noisy side, one might be more classic industrial, one more pop-oriented. Just hearing their songs, blank-slate-style, it could be, like, four different scenes. But it’s when the imagery comes in and you see that classic ‘witch house’ aesthetic—the spaced out sans serif fonts, the triangles, the crosses—that you know what you’re ultimately dealing with.”
Watson has many creative tricks up his sleeve. He starts his Actual Pain mixtape with novelty twee hit “Brand New Key,” for example, but his musical vision ultimately comes down to a marriage of syrupy Southern hip-hop with the lurid horror imagery of the filmmakers Dario Argento and Kenneth Anger. This is the case for many acts self-identifying as “drag.”

“It’s definitely such a weird meshing of such drastic things,” said Watson. “I have to say that when you look at it at first, it might not totally make sense … but when it’s done right, it’s fucking perfect, mashing up chopped-and-screwed with goth synth and horror movie aesthetic.”

Watson, and other more hip-hop friendly groups, including Salem, embrace “drag.” While Salem is one of the few “drag” acts not from the South, they’ve managed to capture the woozy sounds of regional black youth in their home turf around Michigan, including Detroit jit and Chicago juke. While they may have been the first to get tagged as “witch house,” they’ve never used the term themselves. It seems most likely that people heard the name Salem, thought of witches, and then latched on to the whole dark undercurrent running through pop culture.

“There’s an undeniable amount of focus on dark images, occult images, cult-based imagery,” acknowledged Watson. “It’s everywhere, and I think witch house has maybe, in a way, come from this even bigger thing. Listening to black metal was suddenly hip. Everyone name drops the Illuminati. It became this weird sub-mainstream, suddenly mainstream, yet still underground mindset.”

UK pop culture magazine Super Super discusses this dark cultural wind in their “Generation Cult” issue. But they give the idea of a cult mentality a curiously positive spin. “No more me statements,” they wrote, “but an ear and an eye for the collective mood.”

Don’t be fooled. Witch house, drag, and the as-of-yet unlabelled music in the scene, although highly personal, is not a “me statement.” Many artists in this scene work independently, sure, but it’s a far cry from outsider music. There’s a strange sense of community that takes place, not through local pockets, but through the waves and radiation of the Internet. “There’s definite communication,” Watson said. “When I enjoy the music, regardless of scene, I’ll contact them.”

There are also bandwagon jumpers, some of which are pushing the scene to new levels. Mater Suspiria Vision, who emerged in Salem’s wake and gleefully gobbled up labels like “witch house” and “drag,” create a confusing, compelling and creepily self-aware vision of the scene. They understand the genre tropes and inflate them to bizarre levels. “Mater Suspiria Vision has created their own beast,” Watson opined. “In some intense way they’ve impacted the scene as much as the forefathers.”

It’s interesting to see the scene embrace artists who could have been written off as bandwagon jumpers. It speaks to the cult-like sense of community and a strange respect for this universal occult vision. More telling, perhaps, is that many of these artists have never met. Witch house is far from a locally oriented scene. Significant communication takes place online. Few are friends per se. Yet there is a community, bonding over triangles, crosses and spaced out sans serif fonts.

Critics are eager to write off witch house as a passing fad. It has certainly caught on quickly, but it’s more than a trend. There’s a disturbingly sincere quasi-religious quality to this bizarre worship of dark symbols, dark images and dark feelings. While the slow, droney, distorted synths common to the genre, and omnipresent on Salem’s King Night, will sound passé in a year or so, the artists that lead Generation Cult have tapped into something deeper. They’re finding voices, identities and community in the fuzzy mess that is modern music. Until now, modern music and outsider music have been on the same level. But we’re starting to see modern music coalesce—not quite around a scene, but around a feeling.