Review Summary: Just listen.
Remind me again what purpose taxonomy is supposed to have? Oh, right; it's supposed to make classifying things easier. But the increasing trendification of music and subsequent emergence of countless microgenres has made navigating the new-music landscape more difficult than ever. We've reached a point where Carles' writing about some nonexistent bullshit like "rape gaze" legitimizes it as a proper genre, where the tiniest blog has the potential to set off the next big musical trend, where nothing and everything is entirely up for grabs. And tying all of this together, settled comfortably within the countless contradictions of our modern thirty-second-attention-span culture, is Salem. The Michigan band's debut full-length, King Night
, is insistently weird
, the sort of stuff you'd play for your friends purely to catch their reaction; consequently, it has fallen prey to lazy "x meets y" criticism. Gucci Mane produced by Fever Ray. Moby with more than a hint of David Lynch. CocoRosie crossed with some ghouls hanging around the gas station.
Such hypothetical comparisons are meaningless in the larger scheme of themes. Salem don't really defy categorization; they simply don't give a fuck about what you think of them. A disastrous live performance, unintelligible lyrics, growing suspicions that Salem and the whole unfortunately named "witch house" scene have been trolling us all along - it's all met with an indifferent shrug. Founding member John Holland admits to having been a prostitute, a cokehead, a junkie; chances are, a couple of Brooklyn Vegan commenters trashing his band aren't going to make him shed too many tears. So there you have it - Salem don't take themselves seriously; they're just messing around. Except that King Night
is too sonically compelling to be easily dismissed as the next disposable flavor of the month.
The band's influences are recognizable - those pitched-down raps in particular recall The Knife's hallowed Silent Shout
- but these songs coalesce into a sonic world that is aesthetically striking, often nightmarish, and utterly singular. The synthesizers on "Asia" sound more like a swarm of locusts than actual melodies, the bassline of "Trapdoor" is obviously synthetic yet sounds more swampy than anything off of Avey Tare's Down There
, and the superb album opener "King Night" transforms a choir singing "O Holy Night" into something decidedly less reverent. The music seems to exist in a perpetual druggy haze, what with its throbbing, blown-out production. But while King Night
is a harrowing listen, it's also thrilling and surprisingly accessible; "Sick" is unrelentingly creepy, but its monstrous beat is propellent and Holland's choppsed-and-screwed stoner-rap has genuine swagger. There's a lot of unresolved tension in Salem's slow-burning songs, and a track like "Redlights" takes this imbalance and runs with it; Heather Marlatt's vocals never fully come into focus, and the song eschews structure for atmosphere. It would be infuriating if it weren't so undeniably beautiful.
Salem are interesting to talk about because they exemplify the telescoping of culture into tiny fragments that may not even add up to create a coherent whole. But King Night
transcends that extramusical hodgepodge, transcends the zeitgeist that gave birth to "witch house"; hell, it pretty much transcends any concept of an "age" or "generation". If we look at it through this prism, Salem's projection of apathy makes sense; they don't really care about how their music relates to the current state of culture or anything affected like that. That's all just hot air thrown at them by pseudo-journalists and their ilk, pointless buzzwords that distract from the band itself. And so, to those who espouse their self-righteous anti-trend dogma, to those who hated witch house before it ever even made an impact, to those who dissect every aspect of an album except the music itself, I say: just listen