State of the Witch House: Predicting the Controversial Genre’s Future

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It’s pretty much exactly two years since Pictureplane’s Travis Egedy inadvertently created a monster by dubbing the music on his 2009 album Dark Rift “witch house.” It’s a year and a half since Pitchfork, bless them, wrote an article about the nascent “drag” scene, which soon came to be rebadged with Egedy’s throwaway term, and it’s a year since our very own Russ Marshalek posted a fine witch house primer for the uninitiated. People have spent most of the time since arguing about whether a shared love of slowed-down hip-hop beats, artificial reverb, and triangles actually constitutes a genre in the first place. And now, with the release of Balam Acab’s Wander/Wonder last week — an album that a) received unanimously rapturous reviews everywhere and b) didn’t sound witch house-y at all — the question seems to be: if witch house does exist, what sort of future does it have? With all this in mind, it seems like a good time to survey the state of the genre and look at which artists might be around for the long haul. Button down your keyboards – ASCII funtime awaits!

Balam Acab

If we had to pick one artist who’s been called “witch house” for genuine mainstream success, it’d definitely be Alec Koone, aka Balam Acab, the hyper-talented kid whose debut album is already one of our favorites of 2011. Admittedly, the fact that everyone else seems to think the same thing doesn’t exactly make this a bold prediction, but hey, we were tipping Koone ages ago. So there. Anyway, although early tracks like the piledriving “Heavy Living Things” (above) had a dark, ominous feel, Koone’s work has evolved away from beats and toward lush, warmer-sounding compositions that sound more at home outdoors than they do in a dingy DIY Bushwick venue, transcending genre conceits and marking him as a genuinely exciting talent.

oOoOO

The other shining star of Robin Carolan’s Tri Angle Records, Christopher “oOoOO” Greenspan’s self-titled 2010 EP came with a genuinely poptastic sensibility (despite its scary cover art), demonstrated both by the candy-coated vocals that adorned tracks like “Burnout Eyess” and “NoSummr4U” and the fact that he remixed Lindsey Lohan. But then, there’s always been a pop/dance influence in witch house (the clue is in the house part of the name) — and oOoOO’s EP was as diverse and interesting a release as any last year. We’re very much looking forward to a full-length release in due course.

Salem

They’re genre mainstays, yes, and they’re still polarizing opinion. But really, we’re not sure why some people hate Salem so much, because whatever you might say about them, their blend of 45-played-at-33 hip-hop beats and trance-y, tremoloed dual saw synths has been genuinely influential (just listen to, say, the almost hilariously witch house-y likes of GL▲SS †33†H if you don’t think Salem haven’t spawned their own legion of imitators). They have a sound that’s immediate and distinctive. And they have a frighteningly compelling backstory. But still, for all this, the band’s music can sometimes feel lacking in the one area that really matters: the songs themselves. Their best single “Asia” remains quality, and the title track to their debut album King Night was based around the biggest synth riff you’ll hear outside a Tiësto set, but too often there’s a tendency for Salem songs to sound like unfinished sketches of ideas. This is a shame, because they’re a constantly interesting band — hopefully, one day they’ll put all the pieces together with some genuinely memorable songs.

Pictureplane

As has been well-documented, it was Travis Egedy who invented the term “witch house.” By the end of last year, he was already wishing he hadn’t — “It doesn’t exist,” he sighed to Denver’s AV Club website in December, lamenting all the kids who’d ask him what sort of gear they needed to start a witch house band. But here’s the thing — the genre does exist now, for better or worse. Egedy, meanwhile, is continuing to do his own thing — his recent mix for Altered Zones (which you can find on SoundCloud) was relatively upbeat and poppy, although the significantly darker mix he did for Seattle clothing company Actual Pain (which is here — just scroll down a bit) suggests he hasn’t entirely lost his affinity for evil sounds just yet.

How to Dress Well

Another band on Tri Angle, and another example of the fact that label founder Robin Carolan can’t seem to put a foot wrong at the moment. Like labelmate oOoOO, Tom Krell — aka How to Dress Well — clearly has a deep and abiding love for pop music. In Krell’s case, his pop-oriented leanings manifest themselves in direct samples, like the Michael Jackson snippet that adorned “Ecstasy With Jojo.” His music lacks several genre conceits — no chopped and skewed hip-hop beats, no trance-y synths — but it certainly shares the ominous and yet somehow melancholy atmosphere of his contemporaries.

White Ring

Like Salem, White Ring’s combination of big-synths-and-ethereal-vocals pretty much defines what people think of when they think of “witch house.” They’re also in Flavorpill’s opinion by far the best purveyors of what you could call a classic witch house sound — the songs are great, and genuinely atmospheric, while Kendra Malia has a beautiful voice. Sadly, their most memorable contribution to the last 12 months has been an ongoing fiasco with the release of their 12″ EP Black Earth That Made Me — this is a shame, because the record itself was great, and hopefully hints at great things for whenever they release a proper album on a less shambolic label.

Creep

By the middle of last year, the music press was already trying to identify the bands who’d jump from witch house stardom to genuine stardom. An article in NY Press identified Brooklyn duo Creep — along with the aforementioned White Ring — as the band most likely to do big things. A year on, although the article’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek prediction that the duo would be producing Rihanna in a couple of years hasn’t come to pass yet, there’s no doubt that there’s genuine poptastic ambition at play here — just listen to their recent single “You”, which marries a thumping reverb-laden kick sound to some decidedly chart-friendly (and, honestly, pretty shitty) R&B vocals from NYC duo Nina Sky.

†‡†

This Mexican producer released perhaps the most stereotypically witch house track in existence by writing a song called “>>>>▲<<<.” Whatever happens with witch house in the long run, future generations are going to look back at this ASCII malarkey and wonder what on earth it was all about. But in all seriousness, there’s something genuinely subversive about making music that’s un-Googleable — in this day and age where pretty much anything you might ever want to listen to is never more than a Rapidshare link away, there’s a certain perverse pleasure in finding yourself bewildered at how to search for music. At least, until you find out that †‡† is pronounced “Ritualz.”

Gatekeeper

Given its affinity for disconcerting imagery and the occult in general, it’s no surprise to find horror soundtrack influences turning up in witch house. It’s in the work of Chicago-via-Brooklyn duo Gatekeeper that these influences are perhaps most readily apparent, a fact that got plenty of press when they released their album Optimus Maximus a couple of years back, although the record also demonstrated that it’s a fine line between loving pastiche and gimmickry. As of 2011, Gatekeeper are still purveying music that combines cavernous reverb, big synths and demonic giggling — we’ll be interested to hear what might lie in store when they record again.

Sleep ∞ Over

If you’ve ever wondered at the possible common ground between Chromatics-y narcodisco and witch house, then wonder no longer. Stefanie Franciotti, who goes by the name Sleep ∞ Over, recently released a single called “Romantic Streams,” which seems to combine witch house’s chopped and skewed sensibility with the sort of icy vocals that would have Mike Simonetti drooling. It’s certainly different from her earlier work, like the song “Bath Salts,” which is as narcotized as its name suggests and also features some distinctly Karin Dreijer Andersson-esque vocal pitchshifting. Anyway, Franciotti’s debut album Forever is out on September 27, and we’ll certainly be interested to hear it. Maybe there’s life in the old witch house yet?