Salem SalemKing Night
There is something literary about Salem, as if reality were incapable of giving birth to three beings like the members of this band. Something forces one to be prudent and consider John Holland, Heather Marlatt, and Jack Donoghue from the very start as three fictional characters, inventions that could only exist in a novel by J.T. LeRoy like “Sarah” (a book that tried to pass for autobiographical, although it was fiction from beginning to end). John Holland, for example, carries the baggage of a history of heroin addiction (financed working in a petrol station and as a male prostitute), and you need only see how they look to realise that the Michigan trio –with a part of their group and their history deeply rooted in Chicago– represent the white trash-redneck prototype, always dressed like a Friday evening, their clothes dirty and torn, having a beer on the porch, with a licence to carry a gun, and a life without hope, in a shit town where (these things that happen in the modern world) they’ve also ended up armed with beat boxes and truculent synthesisers, so that they can mix their passion for the swampy rhythmic basses of Gucci Mane or Lil Wayne with atmospheres that would be appropriate for “The Blair Witch Project” and the mansion from Henry James ’ “The Turn of the Screw”. Yes, the viral phenomenon of witch house reaches its expressive peak so far in an album that contains all of the elements characteristic of the style –saturated basses, Atlanta rap breaks, cavernous voices, inclinations towards Chicago juke, the ethereal pop of the 4AD label, and the remains of rave culture– with an admirable logic and hypnotic results. They might seem to be a literary trio, a false one, but Salem isn’t a prefabricated band for Goths and hipsters. It’s too sick to be false.
No, Salem is real. Their name may be literary, an obvious reference to devilish forces, which may allude as much to the witch trials in Salem, Ipswich and other colonial Massachusetts towns in 1692 as to “Salem’s Lot”, the Stephen King novel about vampires; or it might not be referring to any of this, but they have been in contact with the rough side of life: drugs, prostitution, bohemia, all mixed with solid training in the fine arts—and they have taken it all naturally to a music that unfolds with assurance. In fact, sooner or later, something like this had to happen: if southern rap—that of Houston, Atlanta, Miami– has a rural background, far from the cosmopolitan, consumer, glamorous civilisation of Manhattan or Hollywood, it wasn’t crazy to suppose that a similar process could take place among the white northern population as a deforming reflection. If southern crunk was born from the mixture of paralysing syrup and explosive electro jams, the drag of the Midwest is caused by listening to crunk and dream pop (with a few drags of tin foil with their crack rocks). “King Night” sounds like it should: creeping, desperately slow, shot through with voices that seem about to break, like a nightmare from a 19th-century fantasy novel: ingenuous to the eyes of the modern reader, harmless once you know that there is no ghost in the closet, but still hypnotic, fascinating. The important thing about the album, despite the bombarding of basses (“Asia”) and the thickness of the melodies, is the unreal atmosphere that it transmits, somewhere between grotesque and romantic.
If “Love Remains” from How To Dress Well is vaporous –and the gloomy fantasy of an aspiring pop star, “King Night” is as thick as fog, the same gloomy fantasy for two guys (Holland and Donoghue) who seem to be coming back from hunting partridges, and a girl (Marlatt) whose best job in this life could be that of a waitress in a trailer park, serving coffee and eggs on the graveyard shift. Meanwhile, they dream of being rap super stars and live trapped in the tangled webs of “Loveless” . There is a mummified flow in “Sick” that sounds like a comatose Lil Jon, to which a background of spectral voices and a keyboard melody like those of The Cure have been added (and if it isn’t a keyboard, it’s transparent guitars, plucked and surrounded in feedback like in “Killer”, which has a lot of My Bloody Valentine mixed with DJ Screw). In “Redlights,” much more clearly than in “Frost”, Marlatt’s throat imitates the timbre and emotive falls of Elizabeth Fraser ( Cocteau Twins). Every song on “King Night” adds a piece to the complex puzzle of Salem, a detail that enlarges the expressive palette of an album that deserves to be one of the points that this year revolves around. Although it may objectively be a laborious patchwork of influences and genres, it manages to sound new and different from the material of other names on the witch house scene ( Balam Acab, for example, is much more European, with dubstep basses, and takes a greater interest in ambient textures; oOoOO emphasises a sickly slowing-down based on screwed & chopped technique, and it seems to create more cacophony than atmosphere). And besides being new, Salem is also definitely an exciting, rejuvenating experience that is worth listening to with the volume sickeningly loud, if possible with headphones and outside, at night, with the first chill of autumn in the air.