Dark electronica built on glimmering vocals and mutilated bass.
Andrzej Lukowski 2010-09-24
Upon their emergence in the middle of 2008, Salem had an edginess that went beyond simple new band buzz. There was no biographical data, no publicity pictures, just an aura of dread about a mile thick, at the heart of which sat a limited-edition EP entitled Yes I Smoke Crack. The contents were pretty remarkable, a series of sluggishly beautiful electronic songs, woozy with fear and sick with the dark, hard to classify, but clearly sharing a degree of DNA with the dubstep movement that was just beginning to crawl out of underground.
Skip to 2010, and Salem aren’t the mystery they once were: we now know that they’re a trio from Michigan named John Holland, Heather Marlatt and Jack Donoghue, while their style of dark electronica has, however dubiously, been dubbed ‘witch house’. None of this has really diminished their brooding presence on debut album King Night. No, what’s done that is the introduction of Donoghue’s rapping. Sounding rather bunged up, he brings a weirdly comical, awkwardly human element to a palette previously built on imperviously icy instrumentals and Marlatt’s scary, treated coo. It’s not a disaster – he only crops up on a few tracks – but he is what is known in the trade a whack MC, and it’s a shame.
Elsewhere, though, Salem match their early promise. The opening title-track pretty much sets out King Night’s stall, a quailing, choral vocal from Marlatt glimmering spookily over roars of horribly mutilated bass. It’s thrillingly OTT, but in fact the real magic comes when Salem take it down just a notch or two. The likes of Asia and Frost still revel in the type of bottom end that could demolish skyscrapers, but they’re more atmospheric, less bombastic, formed around delicate drifts of eerily calm electronics that offer a sympathetic canvas for Holland’s lithe, springy beats, affording piquant contrast when those blasts of bass and vocal distortion come tearing in.
For all the calculated horror show element, much of King Night is very pretty and nuanced, trading in shivering beauty rather than infernal fury, with an aching world weariness running Marlatt and Holland’s more lucid vocal turns. It’s just a shame Donoghue has to dopily blunder in there every now and again, the dimwit henchman to his evil scientist colleagues.
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