Original art courtesy of the Mysterious LeMonjello
Gather ’round children, it’s time for a ghost story. It’s about a music genre, not much older than you1, in fact. It was born, made friends, lived, and then… it died. Or maybe, it never even existed at all.
I’m talking of course about Witch House—the genre that never was.
Witch House was arguably the last of the great Internet genres of the late aughts and bore almost all of the hallmarks. First, the name. All internet genres are known by a plurality of competing tags before settling under one definitive tag. Some alternatives made a decent amount of sense (Drag), some almost none at all (Rapegaze), and one was the perfect combination of descriptive and music nerd shibboleth. Yes, it was witch-y and goth-y; no, it “it’s not actually house music, come on.” But most importantly it just sounds cool. Like a haunted house, but one that’s haunted by sexy Goth chicks and ketamine-addled raves instead of a cobwebbed old widow.
The common refrain around these Pitchfork-birthed genres is that they are an amalgamation of vaguely similar emergent artists from disparate locations around the world, crudely mish-mashed together under one name in an artificial effort to find the next “scene.” And once a name is out with this wide collection of sounds, it serves as a unifying thread, in turn informing the next generation of artists that aspire to embody the newly described ethos. The cycle typically follows the format of: original wave, new wave chasing the label of the original, then back to the original wave rejecting the new title, ad nauseam.
That’s exactly how it played out for Witch House’s more pleasant, popular contemporary, the infamous Chillwave. None of the artists sounded that similar, but once their chillness was identified, the sound leaped from the internet into real life, popping onto festival stages, steady rotation on indie Pandora stations, and into the hearts of a generation. Second rate imitators rose from and fell back into obscurity in short order. Meanwhile, originators like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out rejected their laptop bound earlier personae for live funk bands and psychedelic orchestral lounge music, evolving to survive until this very day. Such is life.
Witch House, however, never survived its leap from URL to IRL. By the time it had dawned on the popular consciousness with its defining document (SALEM’s King Night) it was destroyed by the selfsame album, unable to move past the singular locus of new clichés without fragmenting far beyond the original sound. [“I like to think SALEM destroyed the genre because they made an album so good, everybody else would look like poseurs if they continued making music that could be identified as Witch House. Including SALEM themselves. Which is kind of yacht’s point from the previous paragraph.” – raptor jesus]
In fact, there never was much of a Witch House sound to begin with. More so than almost any other genre, it is defined by a mood above form–dead eyed, uneasy, drugged-out creeping dread, more or less. Sublime beauty enforced, not undermined, by fear. How an artist arrives at this effect is another story entirely. The kingmakers in Salem opted for a blend of copy-pasted 808 beats, smeary digital shoegaze, crack cocaine, and chopped-and-screwed vocals that often border on hipster minstrelsy (and somehow it works). Clams Casino transformed Limewire samples into dreamy soundscapes for backpackers of both the ‘shroomed-out hippy and rap variety. Holy Other, a relative late comer, wove concentric circles of monastic chants around a pulsing heart of techno hypnosis. And still no one is quite sure what the fuck kind of voodoo Balam Acab was doing [“He asked me for weed after opening for Active Child” -raptor jesus].
If one had to define the technical aspects of sound in the most accurate and inclusive terms, it would be a druggy gothic electronic genre dependent heavily on sampling and irreverence toward traditional production values. So much like a ghost, while you’re sure of its presence, it vanishes in your grasp at your first attempt to apprehend its essence.
Perhaps the surest sign that Witch House was a real genre is that, almost without exception, every artist given the label really, really hates being associated with it.In fact, the entire descriptor was purportedly penned as a joke by electronic prankster Pictureplane in 2009, who credits his creation of the name with conjuring the scene into existence.
More compelling spiritual ancestors are the mystical masked spooky siblings Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer of the Knife and Fever Ray, whose vocal manipulations and witchy Scandinavian atmosphere still reverberate. Likely a better earliest distillation of the aesthetic in all but name can be attributed to Crystal Castles. It’s all there–the faux leather jackets, questionable personal hygiene, haunting yet confrontational sound, prominent feminine presence, check, check, check. But the true heart of the genre proper would have to be Tri Angle records, the esoteric label responsible for many of the genres best albums and EPs, and one mixtape dedicated to Lindsay Lohan. Because why not. [“#PrayForLohan” -raptor jesus]
But, that which never lived cannot truly die. So what is Witch House up to these days? Well, not much. If a second wave of artists did follow from the initial excitement, it barely rose above the self parody so inherent to these hipster-driven genres. If we were to pick the final nail in the coffin sealing the fate of the undead scene, it would probably be Chino Moreno’s abomination of an offshoot project, Crosses. [“Uh, it’s spelled †††” – raptor jesus] Or maybe the L’Oreal ad featuring Beyonce and the aforementioned Balam Acab. There was also Salem’s abomination of a performance at Fader Fort 2010. But my best guess was that the scene was DOA when it was so neatly squared off, packaged up, and tied with a cute little bow (shall we say, Postal Serviced) by the duo Purity Ring, who somehow managed to make Witch House cute and were handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
Were we a little more optimistic more optimistic, we might find the future of the scene in an unexpected place. Taken at face value, Swedish rapper/Sad Boy cult leader/notorious promethazine abuser Yung Lean is an embarrassment at best. While most young Swedes speak impeccable English, it’s unclear if Lean has ever even heard an American rapper attempt wordplay. His voice is dispassionate, clumsy, and bereft of musicality. His lyricism vacillates between mundane rap cliché and inscrutable non-sequitur (“Mail box clean/Donald Duck lungs/Need a million dollars, not some bucks, son”). He is, ultimately, uninspiring.
However, with a simple change of perspective, Yung Lean transforms from a trash rapper into an amazing Witch House artist. While Lean has taken no effort to hone his lyrical craft, his producers continually envelope his verses in a psychedelic, pillow haze of synths and beats that bear more than a passing resemblance to the fabled Witch House sound. Skeptical? Stifle your snickering, indulge in your narcotic of choice, cue up the 2016 album Warlord and try to ignore the lyrics. It’s as good as any “†” and “∆” riddled album I’ve ever heard. And with another album since (and one more on the way) it appears that a troubled Yung Swede may be Witch House’s brightest (darkest?) hope in the year 2017.
And with that, we leave you with your playlist. [“I added bonus SALEM at the end.” -rj]