A genre called “witch house” is best served by a celebration of the supernatural, so the debut album by one of its most prominent artists just a few weeks before Halloween is nothing if not fortuitous. King Night, the first full-length from Michigan electronic trio Salem, has a strong likelihood of making its way into fright night rotation, spooking neighborhood trick-or-treaters or chilling hipsters in need of an unsettling grind. But it’s a strange kind of haunt. Salem don’t offer the kind of spacious atmosphere that The Knife did on their ghostly Silent Shout, nor do they lay down beats beneath Penderecki’s most harrowing pieces (thought that might be interesting). Instead, the group stirs up a fusion of ethereal goth-pop with Dirty South hip-hop beats, a curious combination to be sure, but an intriguing one all the same.
With an eerie sonic approach comes a well-exorcised image, however, and Salem more than has that part down. The cover of King Night is the ominous flipside to Justice’s “Electric Warrior” cross, appearing more like a grave monument set against a dark, foreboding sky. Add to that the personal demons of group member John Holland, which include a background of heavy drug use and prostitution, and Salem’s mythology grows even more intriguing. Sure, the group’s disastrous SXSW performance may have thrown a wrench into their otherwise intriguing aura, but then again, you can’t buy that kind of publicity, or resurrect it for that matter.
From the opening title track, Salem sets an absurdly high bar for the rest of the album to clear. It’s a massive, thunderous track. Synthesizers bleat and howl as bass booms with ferocity, as if to signal the coming of the apocalypse. It’s a huge song, one that could have been the incredible climax after a fierce and tense build-up, but rather, the group stuck it straight at track one, which was a risky move. The song that immediately follows, “Asia,” doesn’t have the same wow factor but is considerably creepier, with childlike voices cooing as if broadcast from a possessed television set, approximating Atari Teenage Riot if they took downers and swapped the Bad Brains samples for Dead Can Dance. And “Frost” sounds like the most unsettling Enigma song ever, which is a much cooler feat in practice than in hypothetical terms.
However, “Sick” leans much heavier on the crunk side of the equation, complete with pitch-shifted emcee verses. It’s not altogether awful, but it’s definitely awkward, and sparks a downward slide on the album from which Salem has trouble re-finding their footing. “Trapdoor” likewise features some altered emcee vox, but under much sillier circumstances, with car-crash effects and bubbling synth undercutting the doom the group otherwise goes out of their way to project. “Redlights,” “Hound” and “Traxx” are each somewhat pretty from an atmospheric perspective, but suffer from too little stylistic variation, blurring together in a wash of distorted, chopped and screwed goth, broken up only by the comparatively obnoxious two-minute “Tair.”
As evident from the title track on King Night, Salem don’t just have a good concept, they have the chops to make it sound incredible. Yet when that transcendent moment arrives so early on the album, it leaves the trio at a disadvantage. They never quite reconfigure all of these dazzling elements again, which is a shame. This could have been one of the year’s better debuts, but instead, its unholy power fizzles remarkably quickly. Salem certainly have a good trick, and one really good treat, but on King Night, it’s unfortunately not quite enough to sustain an entire album.
oOoOO – oOoOO EP
Tanlines – Settings
Burial – Untrue
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.