The lo-fi subgenre often wincingly referred to as “drag” or “witch house” has become a focal point for those with a fondness for heavy drone and electro inhumanity; Salem, the Midwestern trio of John Holland, Heather Marlatt, and Jack Donoghue, have been slowly navigating the expanses of that sound for years, a mix of Houston hip-hop’s narcotizing “chopped and screwed” movement and Swedish critical darlings the Knife’s frigid synth-pop melodies. King Night, the band’s full-length debut, somehow fits comfortably in the emotional and geographical middle.
With a suggestive whiff of the occult, Salem offer something few electronic hip-hop hybrids can: a furtive sound both futuristic and visceral, ominous and hopeful. The affirmation of synthetically keeping it real. Their sound isn’t rooted in a codeine-laced desperation to escape the trap life, but they still betray a deep admiration for the culture; what they produce as a result binds eerie, menacing lyrics to soaring, triumphant vocals, almost parodying the more violent aspects of the sounds that influenced it. Nowhere is this more obvious than on “Trapdoor,” which begins, “Nah, I ain’t tryin-a look bad/My expectation has my mouth run dry/I see a bitch run/But I doubt she know why.” It’s a celebration of image over substance, a celebration of swag, the embodiment of distancing ourselves from the darker elements of the music we enjoy. It’s the appeal of hip-hop, without the accountability; though obtuse, Salem appear to be sincere, at least, but still, without that accountability, there’s the constant danger of lapsing into caricature.
This serves as the most remarkable source of tension in King Night and drag as a whole, exacerbated by the most elusive aspect of Salem’s work: the vocals. “Sick” and “Traxx” crawl, wounded-sounding, with nothing more than dissipating harmonics and the erratic compulsion of a firecracker snare to move them forward. But though pitch-black on the surface, most songs here are more energetic than grim, even as they toy with our notion of “dark” by giving us sluggish tempos and fairly disturbing lyrics. The most decipherable line in “Sick” is a chant of “First I tie your hands and feet/Shhhh, don’t make a peep,” but there’s no context or resolution: Menacing ambiguity is both their instrument and their crutch.
Throughout, such lyrics are dressed up in lively melodies and emboldened by curveballs like the “O Holy Night” sample on King Night‘s title track. And while the vocal tricks here might grow stale quickly—just as the chopped-and-screwed sound itself has become a bit of a drag—the elemental precision of King Night suggest a malleability. As such artists as oOoOO and Balam Acab branch out with their own variations on Salem’s first impressive steps, the blueprint provides a wealth of possibilities, Pandora’s box be damned.
Salem play Santos’ Party House October 19