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SALEM’s King Night, Five Years Later

“As if!” – Ancient proverb, Sweet Valley High

Examining music culture can be tricky when you’re involved on a professional and a personal level. For me, experiencing the evolution of a music scene I love makes me quick to defend its cultural relevance. And that’s especially true in a time when micro-genres proliferate exponentially, when one moment something’s a hashtag darling and the next it’s the target of endless snide references.

Witch house is a prime example of this phenomenon. I haven’t heard it mentioned in any sort of serious way until i-D approached me for an interview about Internet subculture. Discussing the role it played, not only in the context of a culture emerging predominately online, but also as part of a larger and pre-existing “dark” scene, led me to think about one of the genre’s great flag-bearers, willing or not: SALEM, and their monolithic LP King Night.

At the time of King Night‘s release, it was hard to imagine that this LP would be the definitive statement from the trio, and that the barely-formed witch house scene was already collapsing inward on itself with too many triangles and too little imagination. While the witch’s influence can still be felt in certain quadrants of Our Underground Scene™, it never became strong enough to stand on its own outside the confines of the computer screen.

But when King Night first came out, it was as though anyone in New York with a passing interest in sonic witchery was buzzing off the hook. I remember buying a copy of the album with some friends and rushing back to listen to it, our XXXL black hoodies flapping behind us like druid cloaks. Friends called friends. SALEM’s world of dirt, decay, thuggery, and foggery was like sweet syrup. It was like Beatlemania for freaks.

Among the assembled listening party were a few deathrockers, some Burning Man types, and a girl who looked like she blogged about sweaters for a living. By the time the booming nihilist bass of “Sick” began rattling the windows, most of us were swaying together like ghosts. There was a feeling in the air of a zeitgeist being captured, of underground being dissolved and reborn in mutant form: a blackened amalgamation of shoegaze, murky Southern hip-hop, bleakness and noise shaped into melody. It felt new, and as a kid who wallowed in the gothier sides of post-punk without being around in its heyday, it felt amazing to be at the center of something emerging that truly spoke to me.

That was five years ago. These days, it’s rare that the frequencies of King Night pass through my speakers. The last time I was inspired to revisit it was when Fred Durst heard SALEM, which admittedly dampened the excitement a bit (while increasing it in other, more mean-spirited ways). I can’t remember the last time I sat down and thoughtfully listened to the record all the way through.

The time has come once again. I’m going to *in Butthead from Beavis & Butthead voice* “set the mood” in my room, slip on some good headphones and the proper SALEM-listening outfit (Damir Doma Sissy’s Cloak from an opera house garage sale, 17th century calfskin hierophant hat under three layers of black chintz, licensed Gandalf replica pipe, ceramic wading boots with heel-activated strobelights, a plastic bag to keep Doritos farts in because I have a girl over, some other stupid bullshit I can’t think of) and give it my undivided attention. From this sentence until the next, imagine that about an hour and a half has gone by.

There’s something to be said for time-lapse perspective. Upon hearing King Night for the first time, what excited me most was the dichotomy of hearing rap over searing darkwave synths and wailing choirs. As someone who grew up in the goth scene and was drawn to Tupac as much as Virgin Prunes, this combination felt truly vital to me. It was like watching a chapter from my dream diary being born, and what was even more incredible was how close to the mainstream it all was—this wonderful, dreadful stew of sounds being incorporated into pop culture, something I’d never have pictured as a teenager.

SALEM’s hip-hop leaning moments still retain a lot of power simply for how sparse and lo-fi the production is. It’s the same element that drew me to underground hip-hop, particularly Southern DIY cassette culture. Cuts like the slouching, minimalistic “Trapdoor” as well as older material like “Sipitcut” are sloppily enjoyable listens partly because of how blown-out and raggedly punk they feel. It’s as if nihilism festers not only in SALEM’s lyrics, but even in their attitude toward the medium of music itself. While many critics of Jack Donoghue’s pitch-downed rapping argue that it amounts to a form of cultural appropriation or even audio blackface, my stance follows three lines:

1. The pitch-shifting has nothing to do with trying to ‘sound black’, but rather is an extension of his love of DJ Screw.

2. It sounds like shit when he doesn’t pitch it down.

3. It sounds cool when he does.

This time around, what stood out to me the most—aside from how easily the massive drops on “Hound” could be converted into a hellish EDM banger—were the tracks featuring Heather Marlatt’s vocals. There’s a striking elegance and even subtlety to these particular songs that sets them apart, in particular the mildly-named “Traxx.” Skittering hi-hats float awash in a void before being consumed by the looming bass. What sounds like workout weights crash down distantly in a rhythmic beat, like a steel door closing behind you. A high synth melody swirls and reaches out to the ear in a liquid rush. It’s strange; I feel as though “Traxx” is one of the most overlooked songs on the album, but hearing it again makes me feel like it’s potentially one of the best darkwave songs ever recorded. In fact, I’ve been whistling that damn chorus melody for the last fifteen minutes, and I suspect it won’t be the last time I do. Fuck my life and the lives of my neighbors (extremely loud whistling fan here).

Pre-Analysis: Revisiting King Night made me think about how we hype artists and styles nowadays, particularly in the field of music-related writing—only to put them to the side in favor of another drop in the constant stream of new information that we’re inundated with on a daily basis. Contemplating the detritus of hype gone by reveals its lasting influence on newer musicians and its current manifestations, even (or especially) when the rubble seems less relevant than ever. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on what drew you to a once-buzzy band or musician in the first place and the transient nature of many modern listening habits. If nothing else, re-evaluating old beloved albums can occasionally provide some interesting samples. That’s why all my Death In June MP3s have DMX barking on them.

Post-pre-analysis: After all this time, does King Night still reign? As an influential album, certainly. I’ve received more SALEM-clone promos than I care to count—which isn’t many, but it would still take a while to sort through the emails and I just don’t care to. As repeat home listening, I’d say it’s best kept portioned out in select doses. It’s still got a lot of great tracks (and a couple of not-so-great ones; I think the liner notes spell “Boar” incorrectly) and to my ears, long inundated by just about any sound you’d care to describe as “dark,” it remains both the high point of a short-lived genre and a beautiful, hateful slice of experimental audio.

Final penalysis: What the hell was up with the video being about a truck.

Published January 23, 2015. Words by Daniel Jones.