by Jakob Ian Battick
A trio hailing from Michigan by way of Chicago, Salem is easily one of the most shat-upon bands in the 'indie' sphere today. To date, they've released 9 official mixtapes, 1 lurching beast of a full-length (2010's King Night), and 7 singles and EP’s, yet only the bullshit details of their existence are the things being discussed by music fans and writers everywhere. Whether it's snarky blurbs on the title of their 2008 EP, Yes I Smoke Crack, knee-jerk panning discussions about their infamous 2010 SXSW performances, now immortalized in a string of hugely awkward Youtube videos, or arguments over whether their sound should be labeled either 'Drag,' 'Witch House' or 'Rapegaze,' the last things being discussed are the actual merits of the group's music.
If most equally-prominent independent bands of any other sort had caused a comparable level of scandal to Salem, they would be given at least a modicum of attention in regards to the full scope of their discography nevertheless. Yet angry music geeks worldwide have chosen to ignore the facts, the actual body of work of the group itself, and to instead pre-emptively pigeonhole Salem as a one-record, bad-performance-giving, buzz-riding flash in the pan. Frontman Jack Donoghue has further complicated the issue by parading himself around in public with Courtney Love, raising many a question mark around the world as to his true aims in music, and band member John Holland's 2008 interview with Butt Magazine1, in which he largely discusses his not-so-distant past as a male prostitute, drug fiend, and abortive art student in Chicago, hasn't helped matters either. But in all actuality, of what consequence is it who Jack spends his time with, or what lifestyle choices John has made in the past? It isn't like other more famous musicians haven't given bum shows, or had equally sordid pasts (cough cough, Ramones.)
The fact that Salem, in a little over a half decade, has already released one of the most baffling discographies of dance music on the contemporary scene should signal that we're dealing with something potentially larger, and deeper, than your average buzz band here. Add to this equation the way in which Salem has so neatly polarized the entire music-loving, and hating, community, and it becomes somewhat ludicrous to argue that Salem is just another inconsequential blip on the critical radar.
To this pair of ears, Salem are one of the most uncompromising and interesting young electronic acts out there. Yes, they have their ups and their downs, and it needs to be said that some of the low points in their output can be wholly unlistenable, but the alternately filthy and gorgeous combination of atmosphere, groove, and hook in their strongest moments bears the mark of a group that, providing they play their cards right, could navigate an oeuvre of truly fascinating and enriching music in the years to come. It's in the way they're both otherworldly (King Night's title track, where spectral ghost-step crests over massive clouds of operatic singing and sub-bass soundwaves) and all too worldly (where “Sick” sounds like the feeling of the seediest dance club ever after four or five too many drinks). Somehow they manage to be at once menacing and enticing; ear-assaulting and womb-like, blissed-out and apocalyptic. They manage to avoid pitfalls their more boneheaded peers easily fall prey to, especially those in the dubstep set, while simultaneously straying far away from the far too self-conscious and cerebral side of electronic music that's so often given prominence in critical discussion today. And, above all else, Salem offers a gritty and perversely sensual alternative to the vast majority of sterile and anachronistic artists currently littering the contemporary independent music scene. After all, it's all too rare that an act thinks as much from its hips as from its brain these days, and Salem stands proudly in the sex-and-death tradition that seems to have gone nearly altogether missing in music today.
Essentially, the crux of Salem's sound is a hood-sweeping, and gutter-draining, magpie approach to the outer fringes of dance music and underground hip hop. Part of what makes up their early promise is the way in which they've so seamlessly drawn disparate, but vital, strands of contemporary electronic and street music into something verging on the new; a bastardized sound that threatens to become something all their own during the finest moments of their discography. They've deftly strung the jittery and skittish rhythms of Chicago Juke and Footwork musics together with the lazy drawl and psychedelic slow-motion swirl of Houston, TX-born Chopped and Screwed music, and then coated the whole thing in layers of near-Industrial level noise and distortion. From there, they add flourishes of the in-the-can, disposable club production style of, yes, Soulja Boy (Donohughe has been vocal about his affinities for the rapper/producer's work in past interviews2), and a few pinches of that classic hazy and gauzy mid-80’s 4AD records sound (think Elizabeth Fraser on a PCP bender), arriving at that distinctive King Night sound. And, for a band who's condemned by its harshest critics as being merely a 'style over substance' act, what else can they possess indisputably if not these miles and miles of jury-rigged, dirt-laced style?
Possibly the most fascinating avenue of the Salem discography, and the most emblematic of this critical pickle we find them in today, is the spotty but ultimately rewarding collection of mixtapes they've released. Here Salem becomes only curiouser and curiouser with each passing minute, turning in absolutely brilliant tweaks of Chicago rappers Psycho Drama and Southern bad boy Gucci Mane on the WMIG/Fader-presented mix We Make It Good, alongside particularly twisted takes on Skeeter Davis and Beach Boys tracks in next breath. Then, next thing you know, they'll turn in handfuls upon handfuls of near-dud remixes on tapes like Sleep Now My Little Eye and I Buried My Heart Inna Wounded Knee, wherein sound itself is often pushed beyond the brink of tolerable fidelity. In moments such as these, the less-than-desirable audio quality of the mp3s and .wav files Salem presumably uses to source their mixes are literally stretched to lengths that render them unrecognizable from their originals, or from most of what's commonly accepted as music in general, for that matter. It has to be stressed though, that buried in and amongst these vast expanses of half-speed sound are truly glorious moments of nefarious and washed out club, dance, and rap music, and they're some of the most extreme reinterpretations of those genres presently available. As such, these instances become noteworthy in and amongst themselves if not just for their own status as far-end curios.
Here the Salem experience almost becomes a treasure hunt: mixtape after mixtape devoured in a handful of listening sessions each (it takes that much patience to work through these things) to find the gems therein; whether it's the brief and blindingly beautiful codeine-soaked quote from Alphaville's 80s smash “Forever Young” lodged near the tail-end of one mix, or a zombie-paced redux of The Righteous Brothers' “Unchained Melody” lodged between equally ridiculous, but somehow more listenable, mixes of Darude's trance classic “Sandstorm” and Gigi D'Agostino's “L'Amour Toujours (I'll Fly With You).”
When it comes to the failures in this branch of their catalogue, those wild experiments that attempt to take brilliant flight but end as hideous wreckage on Salem's musical launchpad, it could be the case that these tapes are born out of earlier, more private experiments. Perhaps these minimal and haunting auditory wastelands offer up some secret to the creators themselves that lighter ears cannot grasp. Or, an even further possibility is that the critics might just be in the right here, and that Salem has less of a grasp on what they're doing with these mixtapes than I'm giving them credit for. It becomes impossible to know after a certain point, especially when it sometimes seems that (at their laziest) all the trio does to 'remix' a tune here and there is to slow it down by 50-100%, add an extra drum track, pitch the vocals down, and throw in some intermittent floating sounds in the periphery of the stereo field.
Couldn't it also be that Salem works to make their audience's listening experience more difficult? Perhaps they want their easier-going listeners weeded out, so that only the strangest of electro-freaks, all clammy and terrifying, are left to sort through their aural rubble. It is also interesting to note that the two loosest, most challenging, and seemingly thrown-together mixes (I Buried My Heart and Sleep Now) are self-released affairs, without the benefit of supporting websites or labels to aid in their online distribution. This detail hints at a more cloistered process, and thus a more incomprehensible end product, in these potentially excusable instances.
Whatever the case, these tapes are some of the most gloriously whacked experiments going in dance/electronic music now, boils and bad turns and broken legs and all. They offer glimpses into the working process of a young band that's covering ground at a speed faster than it can itself keep up with. From the fever-addled house sounds of Raver Stay Wif Me to the bizarre underwater doom-hop of Bow Down and back, you'd be hard pressed to find stranger, yet equally as redeeming, sounds out there, and therein lies the absolutely addictive beauty of Salem's music. From what may have initially been just innocent curiosity, or morbid fascination, on the part of the listener springs legitimate appreciation and engagement with repeated listenings. Once you've truly lent your ears to these tracks, provided you're one of those rare individuals blessed with a legitimately open and unbiased mind, it can become all too easy to find yourself returning again and again. This is where Salem bucks the hype, and stands on the proof of its own pudding.
As far as those infamous live performances go, Salem just might be one of the first prominent 21st century electronic acts who flat out fail to transition from the home studio to the stage. The simple fact of the matter is that younger and younger bands, and consequently more inexperienced bands, are producing more and more fully-formed electronic musics in the comfort of their homes, both because they have easier access to more powerful equipment and because they can practice night after night by themselves in their very own private sea of ones and zeros. In turn, these bands (who sometimes have little to no experience performing in front of audiences, or even making sounds in real life, for that matter) are being forced into the limelight, both in the media and in venues around the world, at earlier and earlier stages in their creative developments. Where bands once toured relentlessly for years just to have a shot at festivals, print coverage, and label recognition, it is now entirely possible to produce a set of recordings on your computer one week and to be world famous the next. Names like A$AP Rocky and Tyler The Creator come to mind immediately as peers in this situation, though we've yet to see how vastly these groups' experiences will differ in retrospect. In this sense though, Salem's live shortcomings are just symptoms of the age we live in, where music is increasingly simulated and programmed (the Kraftwerkian model) rather than performed ad nauseam by hand to a state of mechanical reflexivity and engagement (the Classical model). It could be the case, too, that in the years to come we may only see acts with increasingly worse examples of these predicaments, as flabbergastingly stiff and uncomfortable shows become a certain sort of rare but expected 'industry norm.'
What disturbs me most about this state of affairs though is the fact that we, as attention-deficit-stricken listeners and next-big-thing-minded writers and labels, are squashing the potential of the acts we thrust into fame one day and write off the next. And Salem is a perfect example of this situation, an unfortunate victim of a media-blitz witch hunt, and the scapiest of goats. Acts like this deserve to be given time to grow and to tinker, to find who they themselves are as musicians and performers, and to practice their crafts on an upward-slanted curve of attention, both onstage and offstage, rather than immediately attempting world takeover. It becomes excruciatingly obvious that the more one watches the SXSW videos, that Jack & company were literally fumbling blindly on those stages to define even for themselves what a Salem show is and should be. Depending on who you ask, they either failed miserably at it or were one of the festival's most intriguing acts that year. It becomes dangerous, however, to write them off for such behavior and inexperience, because it offers them no chance to grow, or to improve on what they've shown us. We must keep in mind that every young band we write off so quickly is a potentially great act aborted, a miniature Prince or Bjork or Nirvana (imagine how different things would be if these artists had been dismissed after their first albums!), allocated to an early grave. Perhaps it would be better to let these groups not know what they're doing, and to not expect everything from them right away. Maybe then the musical world would be richer, deeper, and more satisfying than the veritable high school of trends, rehashes, and purchased-stardoms it stands as now.
Regardless, the fact of the matter still stands that Salem is a bizarre, if imperfect, young act worth paying attention to, all drug habits and sexualities and famous friends aside. Even if you despise the very core of their being, it would still prove interesting to keep up with the band in the years to come. Remember too that many of the bands we all now claim in hindsight to have loved perpetually started out as hip or trendy acts whose longevity was initially questionable. One can never be sure that 'the next big thing' or the 'new worst thing' will stick around to deliver on its initial promise, for better or for worse, but we at least know that Salem will offer a strange ride to the spectators that do follow their career. Whether this ride will track them along a course to music-altering cult figure status or Where Are They Now levels of spent potency is anyone's guess, but the absolute least we can do as listeners is to check in on them now and again.
Really, it can't be accurately predicted whether Salem will thrive in the immediate future or self-destruct in a grease-smeared ball of excess and dashed potentials. It would be a shame for them to seal the deal in a way concordant with the predictions of their critics, as they've yet to release that one mixtape or album that will forever seal their legacy, big or small, in an easily transmissible package; their Maxinquaye, their Perfect Prescription, their own Metal Box. It would indeed be nice to be able to look back one day and see those one or two records wherein Salem truly focused and tightened their game, and delivered the truly jaw-dropping records they seem, in those handfuls of bright and shining (or dark and smoldering) moments, to be absolutely capable of producing. Hell, they can keep the scandal, the pentagram necklaces, and the fashion photo shoots, and they can even dig themselves deeper and deeper into the world of buzz-band tomfoolery. As long as they give us one great record, I will be eternally thankful.
1. Butt Magazine interview
2. Dummy Magazine feature
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