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Haunted: A Witch House Primer

As Donovan once said, it must be the season of the witch… house. Having trouble figuring out what all the buzz is about? Don’t worry: The truth is, the parameters of the burgeoning musical genre known as witch house are still blurry. Even the name “witch house” itself is cause for debate — the origins are unclear, but the label sounds like an attempt to pigeonhole the murky music into a dancefloor-friendly category. The music itself has a few shared characteristics — a dark, dreamy sound incorporating swooning synths at a drowsy tempo, pitched-down vocals and, generally, the feel of being trapped inside a haunted house — that make it both exhilarating and terrifying. In that way, it’s kind of like catching a glimpse of a ghost.

Despite the foreboding name and frightening sounds, witch house is actually more inclusive than it might appear at first listen. With roots in ambient, EBM (electronic body music), Chicago juke, dark-tinged synth-pop, trance,  drone metal and screw, witch house has tendrils that caress the musical pleasure centers of fans of Throbbing Gristle, My Bloody Valentine, Swans, Brian Eno, and Gucci Mane alike.

Witch house-heavy labels like Tri Angle (a facet of seminal German techno label Kompakt), run by 20 Jazz Funk Greats blogger Robin Carolan, follow a Factory Records model of releasing records as keepsakes, paying close attention to album artwork and fetishizing  a hazy nostalgia that’s as vital to the aesthetic as the music itself. If you want to hear these dark sounds and dance at the same time, there are parties like New York’s  Todd “Pendu” Brooks and his Pendu Organization’s vital  Pendu Disco, a.k.a. “Horror Scores For The Dancefloor.” Oh, and you can also consume witch house as a  fashion statement. And a coffee mug.

Though various bands/DJs/producers may not align themselves with witch house as a genre (and it’s hard to blame them for that),  Oneohtrix Point Never, Grouper, CFCF, Prince Rama, and Laurel Halo are among the names associated with the movement, which once counted among its numbers the now-defunct Pocahaunted, whose Bethany Cosentino went on to form the ridiculous sun-stoner group Best Coast.

With several major witch house releases  recent or looming on the horizon,we present this introduction to five more witch house names to familiarize yourself with. The countdown to Halloween begins now.

Salem

The members of Salem (alternately written as SALEM or S4LEM, but for consistancy’s sake, we’re going with the simplest form) are arguably the poster children for the witch house movement. With their baggy, pentagram-laden look — think Stevie Nicks as a graver dancing at the Hacienda — their ominous album artwork (and even more frightening Flickr), and their molasses-paced horror-core sound, Salem are one of the most frustrating, polarizing, and exciting musical acts of the moment.

When the trio of Jack Donoghue, John Holland and Heather Marlatt performed at this year’s South by Southwest festival, they were met with crushingly negative response. They’re bored in interviews at best (other than this fascinating piece BUTT did on Holland): in the only existing video interview with Salem, when asked about fans and their relation to Salem’s music, Donoghue responds, “People will say to us, ‘We love this song, like how it’s about this thing that’s so powerful,’ and we’ll be like…what the hell are you talking about?  But like, that’s cool.” And oh, yeah, Chris Weingarten and Owen Pallett notoriously (and, okay, hilariously) bickered on Twitter about the former’s portrayal of Salem’s forthcoming IAMSOUND debut King Night.

All this controversy (and all those Flickr photos of teddy bears and nooses) tends to overshadow the music, though, and that shouldn’t happen. The music Salem makes is a heady, gloriously crushing blend of  the jittery “juke” sound perfected by the likes of Chicago’s DJ Nate, slowed-down southern horror-core rap, trance, and shoegaze. The title, kick-off track from King Night is Salem at their best — heady, irreverent (is that “O Holy Night”?), and punishing.

Bonus: “5Min2Live”, a straight-up, all out trance mix by Salem, a counterpoint to their chopped, screwed and destroyed post-apocalyptic  “Raver Stay Wif Me” mix.