Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live
Drag, Rape Gaze, Drag and Rape Gaze. Ghost Drone. Zombie Rave. Goth-Juke. Grave-Wave. These, and endless other, illustrative and occasionally vulgar terms describe what many call Witch House, a new genre of geographically unhinged Lo-Med-Fi (electronic based) music that’s hitting the underground music world with cometary bombardment. While Witch House has deep roots in Houston’s chopped n’ screwed hip-hop scene of the 90’s (whose creator, the late DJ Screw, crafted tunes by a hardening process of winding down his turntable to a crawl while recording via cassette), it also has the more recent luxury of readily available computer software like Garageband and Fruityloops commonly found on Macs.
In 2007, Robert Disaro of Houston began Disaro Records and released the touchstone of Witch House (before it was Witch House): Salem. Since their inception, countless others have formed – some talented, some lackluster. (Robin Carolan later formed a comparable label, Tri Angle.) Todd Brooks, AKA Todd Pendu, of Ekstatic Vision magazine and Pendu NYC (seek out his Witch House starter mix – Horror Scores for the Dance Floor, Vol. 4) has stated, “Although this new sound is dark, it’s really about how it draws from the present and the past to create something entirely unique to this moment in time.” Most bands, however, deny the potently romantic label of Witch House. According to Brooks, Travis Egedy of Pictureplane and Jonathan Coward of Shams referred to their music as Witch House, back in 2009. Around January 2010, also according to Brooks, an online personality by the name of Gucci Goth began incessantly tagging an assortment of bands with Witch House on the Last.FM website, creating a seemingly inextricable web of confusion. And so it began and (until someone intervenes) apparently will not end, since the tag has been applied by countless users on YouTube et al. This would explain the disparity among the bands and the frequent comments by users such as Last.FM’s ‘mynameisellen’ on recording artist V▲GINA WOLF: “i don’t understand how this is witch house.” After I acquainted myself with (what to me was) this foreign genre, I too got this feeling of uncertainty. Do I like Witch House because I like Vortex Riker’s “Dreams”? It’s tagged Witch House, after all. Or maybe I just like the lovely video featuring the sea-side imagery of Maya Deren? “Dreams” is anything but oppressive. It sounds like a frosty crystalline christmas-lit night; if someone were making sno-cones on a planet called Do-nut, this would be its soundtrack. So, it could just be that Witch House is ineffable and ever-changing as the tides, a million and one variations on ripples. The Witch lives by the moon and is the ultimate shape-shifter and the moon is the mother of the seas. It seems fitting. But maybe I’m over-thinking this a bit?
I attempted reaching out to White Ring, Salem, Disaro Records and Gucci Goth through email and Facebook. However, I heard nothing but “LOL” from Gucci Goth which I think means ‘Lots of Levitations.’ These bands appear to have a general pact of silence and are deliberately evasive to media requests. As the real story stays swept under the rug the only picture we get is that of a witch’s familiar. Nothing is what it seems. An anonymous Facebook user did give me the following regarding Gucci Goth: “He did review and write about goth, deathrock and post punk under the moniker Lakini Malich, in Drop Dead Magazine. If you check for credits, though, he is listed as Dan Jones. Daniel Triangle was his name for a while, around the witchhouse buzz. He still likes and books witchhouse acts, but I believe he thinks the hype is a bit “done” already, and thus he left the Triangle part. Now he’s Dodecahedron. Don’t really know why. I just know “he is said” to be one of the instrumental people in naming and spreading the idea of witchhouse, but he is not mentioned at Wikipedia.”
Though their music is largely comprised of original lyrics coupled with a variety of samples, Witch House bands do have a fondness for screwing pop songs by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, among others. I do enjoy the Vatican’s phrase: “Heretic House – a new thread to the Satanic fringe in our world’s increasingly Godless youth.” Witch House wouldn’t survive or even exist really if the Internet didn’t pimp out our world now. YouTube and other social networking sites are the lifeblood of this music. Original recordings are released on CD-R and vinyl with elaborate packaging and illustrations, all created with love and meticulous precision. This is music for the consummate romanticist. Witch House imagery is filled to the brim with the arcane and archaic: crosses, double-crosses and pentagrams (upright and inverted), with pyramids and a plethora of other mutations. These glyphs are often employed in the band’s names, albums and song titles to add more mystery and avoid simple Google queries. (Or, is this part of a consciousness-altering master plan that will manifest sometime in the not too distant future?) Online videos by fans like 22-year-old YouTube user “qilme’s” gorgeous concoction of the Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov’s, The Colour of Pomegranates, and 72-year-old Icelandic user “rittodsmirg’s” video of a girl in a room writhing around naked, decorated with various black symbols, both illustrate Salem’s (S4lem) chopped and screwed “Tair” (Arabic for bird) whose sound provides the only bridge across a chasm that the two vastly different interpretations create. “Victoriamorricone” utilizes a spooky French black and white animated piece, Fear(s) of the Dark, of a little girl wandering through a haunted forest and into a laboratory of horrors to paint Salem’s instrumental “King Night.” Jan Sima creates a startling beautiful world (with Simon Dvoracek’s cinematography) for Salem’s “Water,” involving a girl within a forest encountering the outline of a floating aqueous pyramid (see above). All of the various fan-made ‘tributes’ influence the viewer’s understanding of a band, especially when one is not familiar with the band otherwise. Is it an imposition on the music or an act of adulation? Do the artists care?
Salem’s music played while models traversed the catwalk for Givenchy’s (sorry Gucci Goth) Spring/Summer 2011 Paris show. Jack Donoghue of Salem is currently dating Courtney Love and they have been seen walking red carpets in New York and LA. He has been snapped with the likes of Christina Ricci and Stipe, James Franco and Liv Tyler have all attended Salem’s live performances. It appears that Donoghue is poised to be snagged by a major label, molded and sold, leaving his friends and band mates behind and going on to big money. Their debut album, King Night, tests the waters, as it showcases varying styles. Band members Jack, Heather Marlatt and Tim Holland have been featured in Dior ads in the NY Times style mag and Holland spoke of being a (former) Heroin addict and prostitute in BUTT magazine. The article reeked of the ridiculous JT Leroy AKA Laura Albert nonsense of several years ago, but it may very well be true. Anthony Fantano of theneedledrop.com describes Salem’s dirty south tunes as “crunk for people that hold seances.”
In April of this year NYU student and musician Abby Echiverri brewed up an interesting and somewhat humorous form of cyber-sabotage; I will call it her own form of witchery. She created a track for her Intro to Digital Arts class that in the end, due to a technical glitch, became chopped and screwed. She originally intended for it to be a song for her own band, but following the mess-up, instead added lyrics that she generated with chillwitchnamemagic.com, a Witch House band name-making site which, by the way, isn’t helping the genre’s validity. After registering the track under a domain name very similar to Salem’s, Ecchiverri then sent emails with faux-quotes from Jack Donoghue about it as Salem’s new track. Blogs bought it and hurried to promote it. I’ve heard the track four times and it is reminiscent of a cheapened version of goth-rock’s Lycia. (An interesting side note: Ms. Ecchiverri was previously an intern at PENDU. Yeah.) Salem was not amused as Jack tweeted, among various expletives, that it was a “weak ass song.” Ecchiverri later wrote Salem’s publicist a letter explaining the prank while promoting her own band Dream Affair’s upcoming release. (Note to Abby: Jack is dating Love who at least in the past has had a penchant for physical altercations involving females. Watch out, she just might hit you with her ruby slippers.)
Flavorwire user “Chris” commented: “Witchhouse = hipsters affecting the Goth Industrial scene. they essentially ruined the post punk scene so now they’re on to the next flavor of the week.”_
Some have accused Witch House of being Hipsterfodder, but may anyone who says this be sent to the gallows! Well, I will get to the gallows later, but I still disagree.The negativity unleashed on Witch House bands is not entirely deserved. Most Witch House lacks the vacuousness of hipsters I have seen and there are some truly talented bands making great shit: the Michigan-based Salem, oOoOO, Mexico’s †‡†, Tearist, White Ring. The great tracks out there easily lend themselves to the cinematic landscapes of Dreyer, Cronenberg, Lynch and any Hammer Horror production. Flavorwire’s Russ Marshalek describes White Ring vocalist Kendra Malia as “The musical version of Samara from The Ring.” White Ring’s “IxC999” has the repeating mantra “My face is gone” or at least this is what I heard when I listened to the track. It brings to mind the final moments of Blair Witch, when the guy is standing in the corner while his friend makes blood-curdling screams. Some bands create accompanying glossy videos such as the lovely ⏄’s “The Prophecy,” inspired by Victorian and Neo-goth elegance. The faceless Mater Suspiria Vision’s music would not work so well if he did not make homemade videos utilizing found footage. His non-linear horror-film soundtracks thrive on the imagery.
Nicolas O’Brien conducted a video interview with Modern Witch member Mario Zoots for Badatsports.com which read more like an installation piece. The entire video was chopped and screwed with a barrage of abstract images interspersed with O’Brien’s face, and in order to understand, I had to ‘rewind’ and play multiple times, never fully getting it. Clearly this was intentional, and it reminded me of an EPK for the malefic Umbrella Corporation, deceiving and infecting the viewer through repeated viewings. Mario Zoots states, “What I do with the hidden is as important as what I show.” I am certain this is a reference to the occult.
Anonymous Brooklynvegan.com user commented: “this goth-revival shit is ridiculous.”
Todd Brooks says that some have contemplated calling it “Witch Haus” to differentiate it from House music, and goes so far as to suggest it be called “HexenHaus.” (How about Ecto-House?) Believermag’s Rozalia Javonic referred to Salem as a “Lo-Fi Horrorcore band.” I think the aforementioned Gucci Goth is a modern day Tituba. Tituba was the Arawak slave first accused of witchcraft in Salem 1692 by two young girls to whom she was supposedly teaching the art of divination. The two girls – Abigail Williams and Betty Parris began having writhing physical fits (see “rittodsmirg’s” video for a stylized example) and displayed other odd, disturbing behavior. A doctor claimed they must have been bewitched. Tituba and two others were accused and Tituba, for whatever reason, soon corroborated the stories and began spouting off various other names she said were also ‘practitioners of witchcraft,’ telling fantastical shape-shifting tales about them involving flights in the night skies and according to some scholars even baked a ‘witch cake’ laced with the girls’ urine…And so the chaos and hysteria and eventual deaths by hangings began. Tituba later recanted, and still ironically escaped death, while the others did not. The influence is undeniable, if unconscious. Todd Brooks’s previous statement about this dark music’s connection to the past and the present upholds my proposition here and creates an untrodden pathway that requires a bit more study. The actual pitch-black and wooden home of the 17th century witch trial judge Jonathan Corwin has a black sign on its front lawn that reads “Witch House,” an ominous visage to behold I’m sure. It is quite the draw for tourists in Salem and many events are held on the grounds each year including, of course, eerie Halloween tales. A Witch House music fest in the future maybe?
There are several different theories as to the causes of the tragedies that befell the women and men of 1692 Salem, one being Convulsive Ergotism, which is a physiological pathology resulting from the ingestion of Ergot tainted grain and is often accompanied by involuntary physical tics and hallucinations. The majority of evidence allowed during the trials was called Spectral Evidence: dreams and visions. All of the afflicted’s testimonies rivaled the greatest fiction writers, and included images one would not expect common folk to conjure up. I mention the pathology theory because chopped and screwed music, and now Witch House, has often been enhanced with the ingestion of ‘syrup’ (Cough medicine containing Codeine) which can often cause hallucinatory feelings and altered perceptions of a person’s reality. Witch House oozes the unseen, from its makers and from its many YouTube incarnations, which all paint a different story. But which is more accurate?
The future of Witch House will be about survival of the fittest…and the most unique. (And a band called Corwin and Tituba?) I imagine in a few years many bands will shed the label, yet it will stay with others, such as Salem and White Ring. The genre may solidify and shrink, or sit in an ever-widening holding pattern, yet we will be able to say Yay or Nay regarding who or whom is definitively Witch House, and more importantly, which artists are talented enough to transcend the genre. To form a wicked partnership in the sky one must learn to fly.
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 20:18 (Webster’s Bible translation)
Michael Floyd is a writer and children’s author currently seeking a publisher and agent. He has written for among others, FAULT magazine in the UK. He is also a photographer and great lover of music, old horror films and antiques.