Between its association with a microgenre once controversially known as "rape-gaze," a debut EP entitled Yes I Smoke Crack, and one of its members' past history as a heroin-slamming gay prostitute, there's pretty much no way to just talk about the music when discussing Salem. But let's try.
King Night, the group's September-released debut album, begins like this: the vague, squirrelly sound of a taped guitar riff played through a tinny speaker; a haunting, druggy voice moaning "I love you"; and then, with a stab of crystalline synth notes, a mist of churchy chorus vocals, and the rapid-fire snare blast from a Dirty South rap beat, the final closing of what feels like a soft, cathedral-size coffin.
Welcome to a style of music that has become known, somewhat less controversially, as "witch house." Salem (only about the fifth band to claim that name, but whatever) is the careless king of this territory, but not because its haunting, synth-driven electronic music is the best. Its members are most likely the best-known witches for other reasons, some of which you may have gleaned from the above. But we'll get to that.
As the 11 tracks on King Night play through, it becomes clear that Salem's three band members, who hail from Chicago and Traverse City, Mich., possess about four sonic ideas. There are blasting electronic beats, speckled with a snare-clatter borrowed from hip-hop. There are puddles of moody synth that drift about as fast as cumulus clouds across a lazy June sky. There are breathy female vocals lingering in the music's gloomy stratosphere, which, once in a while, form something resembling a word. And there is the sound of a deep-voiced rapper muttering self-seriously about "bitches," fear, and, presumably, other things. (You can't really make out the lyrics, and the band members aren't saying.) This last voice is not a deep-voiced rapper, though. It's actually Salem's Jack Donoghue, a skinny white kid who detunes his vocals to sound — let's face it — black.
Mostly, King Night contains a lot of near-nothing: keyboard notes extended into panoramic doomscapes by the magic of electronic signal processing, elementary beat patterns on constant loop, vocals that seem to be human but leave little lasting feeling other than vague dread. We have to assume this is supposed to be scary, and to some extent it is. But Salem's music is largely chilling in the same way cheap horror movies elicit involuntary goosebumps: through blunt sensory manipulation rather than any subtle creativity. We are programmed to hear low, groaning string notes as ominous. High-pitched drones would pierce in any context. Guitars distorted to shoegaze dimensions sound big and black, no surprise. (These elements have earned this band the adjective "gothy.") At times, Salem's attempts at fright end up sounding silly. You've heard the cheap sound effect of a jail cell door slamming shut — "ch-chunk"? Imagine that played over and over, and you can grasp some of the cartoonishness of "Traxx."
All of which is not to say that Salem is completely awful — though many have. It has its moments of captivating gloom. The band's music is sort of a new flavor of the spare, electronic pop that has become so common in the last few years, but instead of sunny and dreamy, King Night is dark and morbid. The song-making tools are the same; Salem's additions are a few touches of Chicago and Southern hip-hop and a dose of terror.
As with many of the new psychedelic electropop acts — which got their own redheaded stepchild of a moniker in the now groan-inducing term "chillwave" — Salem's popularity arose out of nowhere. Its Midwestern members are inexperienced musicians who were unknown before this project. Its music is so simple as to be almost maddening, filled with a vast negative space between repetitive beats and reverberating keyboard lines. And as with bands of the chillwave ilk, Salem benefits from an apparent willingness in listeners to imbue this emptiness with meaning, to view the lack of something graspable as a worthwhile something in itself. Either way, Salem's music is more of an impressionistic mood sketch than a coherent statement delivered. Judged on those terms, its moments of grayish doom can be considered a modest success.
Yet there's something totally hatable about Salem, something that in recent months has caused music writers to dogpile on the band with an M.I.A's.-truffle-fry fury. There is, of course the insane backstory of member John Holland, who told an interviewer for Butt magazine in 2008 that he used to work as a prostitute in Michigan and Chicago. There's the members' alleged predilection for massive amounts of alcohol and hard drugs, and the fact that those habits, according to interviews, played a role in Holland dropping out of the private art school he attended in Chicago. There's the fact that Holland used to work at American Apparel. The fact that several of the band's live shows were documented as utterly disastrous, and the members say they don't care. That Donoghue slept through a New York Times interview, cementing a reputation for apathy. That they borrow liberally from many styles of music about which they have apparently little knowledge and interest. Also, that Donoghue's detuned vocals are an obvious attempt to sound black and get away with saying things like a black rapper might say them, without actually being black.
But what most conclusively ended Salem's two-year buzz-orgy were the words "rape gaze." Tossed out in Pitchfork's September review of King Night as a possible synonym for the bemoaned term "witch house," the phrase sparked a minor controversy on the web. The Village Voice went digging for its origin and found an explanation in Brooklyn's Creep, a witch house duo that said it coined the "play on words" (referring to the genre "shoegaze") as a label in self-mockery. Since then, everyone, including Salem, has disowned the term, reassuring us that no sexual violence toward anyone was advocated. Pitchfork even took the phrase out of its King Night review, adding an editor's note at the bottom explaining why. With that — and given the ample amount of other ammunition Salem has given its detractors — the slamming only accelerated, peaking with prominent Voice critic Christopher R. Weingarten blasting Salem's "Trapdoor" as the sixth worst song of 2010.
Yet there's hardly a sign that Salem deserves such strong feelings — either positive or negative. Underneath all the hype and the backstory, King Night is just a dark drag of a listen — neither terribly revolutionary, nor a total failure. But good luck judging this band solely by its music.