Any artists with the gall to share their music with strangers run the risk of having someone else control the dialogue. That already harsh process can be a lot harsher if you’re saddled as working in an entirely new genre of music. If someone makes a bad “rock” record, at least they’re tied into the tradition of rock music and are somehow, if nebulously, connected to every other rock recording ever made. Fledgling electronic act Salem is working with something that’s alternatively called drag, witch house, crunk gaze, dream dub, doom step, post-hop, and heroin wave. Understandably, it’s open season. Add to the mix a well-circulated video of a live performance so laughable that it begs the viewer to dismiss Salem as trolls. The group has its work cut out for them.
Fortunately, King Night is a record that works hard. It makes more apparent what’s suggested by the group’s music thus far: that Salem’s brand of “drag” or “witch house” or whatever you want to call it is the latest response to hip-hop by a group of people who weren’t ever positioned to make “rap” themselves, for whatever economic or class conditions that make it unfeasible. Reading interviews the members of Salem come across as people who are generally unhappy, and without the kind of demonstrable hardship that a rags-to-riches rapper who used to cook crack in the projects might have had, some seem eager to disqualify Salem from being perenially displeased. Unfortunately Salem isn’t going to do a better job of skirting that issue than they do with the witch house sound; indeed, it seems plausible that if member Jack Donoghue looked more like Rick Ross he would just knock over all the blogosphere authenticity hurdles and just make the most despairing rap music alive.
Even without considering the more-than-tolerable rapping of Donoghue, the elements that Salem have lifted from southern rap are obvious. You can hear it in the massive, vocalless album opener “King Night”: the tinny snares, the cough-syrup tempo, a goofy synth sound here and there. The main difference between the genres is that where southern rap is occasonally buoyant or downright self-affirming, Salem have appropriated and intensified the urban despair of rap into a much more personal, repugnant despondency that’s hard to identify with if you don’t understand it personally. That is not to say that the only way to engage Salem’s music is to personally understand experiences of alienation, sexual aggression, and violence; there’s also a kind of empathetic tourism that a listener can employ for a song like “Sick” or “Killer” and not be left out.
This all seems so obvious listening to the snares and handclaps of early single “Redlights” that general fuddy-duddyism has got to be part of the reason why so many haven’t bothered to contextualize Salem other than writing them off as blog darlings. Whether or not you think antipathy and self-destruction are legitimate themes for music, or you feel that even the pretty remote handling of rap that Salem has done as three white kids is too much, you can’t dismiss what started all this hub-bub in the first place: the fact that the trio has crafted a sound that still doesn’t really sound like anything else. Whatever else it does, King Night stays true to that.