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Salem - King Night

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Artist: Salem

Album: King Night


Review date: Oct. 4, 2010

Two very different discussions are necessary for the new Salem record: one for “King Night” the song and one for King Night the album. At its most reductive, “King Night” is an enormous, wicked masterpiece of tortured pop conventions, while King Night makes you wish they had stayed on vacation after the whole Fader Fort debacle. The discrepancy in quality is nearly impossible to reconcile, but the gap does provide for a more nuanced understanding of the band’s agenda, and if they did, in fact, ever give a shit about anything beyond music as a means to a self-promotional end.

My familiarity with Salem has always been, and will remain, limited, to say the least. Most of what I had heard came from The Fader’s echo chamber of inconsequential hype, anti-hype and counter-hype following the band’s SXSW trainwreck. Also, somewhere along the line, the proposed genre term “witch house” popped up, and that was enough for me.

So, now it’s October, and I end up with this record, the existence of which was a surprise in and of itself. To say I wasn’t prepared for “King Night,” though, is an understatement. As it stands, I’m pretty susceptible to opener shock tactics. The mid-song sneak attack on Harvey Milk’s “Death Goes to the Winner” knocked me out of my chair the first time, and The Body’s recent “A Body” forced a visceral, pre-language reaction when the hammer falls at the end of that song. But “King Night” goes beyond just an opener: it’s a song that will define this band once the dust settles on this era of generic balkanization.

Salem steam rolls the most disparate elements in popular music into an unorthodox high-low pastiche of frightening proportions. The very bottom layers of drone are local tendencies, coming from the Detroit-Cleveland noise axis with Wolf Eyes post-industrialism on one side and Emeralds sonority on the other. Waves of bastardized dubstep horror bass seem to be a hallmark, but they’ve never been so monolithic. Similarly, Houston-style scattershot snares rattle through the entire production, offsetting the bottom-heaviness with some rather deft Paul Wall-istics. These fundamentals are strong, and if left to their own devices, would make a great track. But the additional flourishes provide the song with real personality, torturing the pieces into place. A stretched out introductory “I love you” that sounds like a zombie Barney transitions straight into a hellishly operatic choir essentially singing “O Holy Night.” And if that’s not enough, chillwavy synths are also appropriated, a tongue in cheek reference to Carles’ tongue in cheek suggestion that they “convert to the chillwave movement instead of staying goth wave.” This time, Salem’s much vaunted murkiness is so imbued with a wicked sense of humor, self-awareness, and sheer force of will that it demands attention.

None of which can be said for anything that follows on King Night. The only thing the next 10 songs even have in common with “King Night” is a simplistic attempt to replicate particular elements of the mother song. In trying to make the parts work as well as the whole, Salem manages to remind you what made the band so lackluster in the first place. “Asia” may come closest to an anemic replication of the original formula, but “Sick” and “Trapdoor” are the real nails in the coffin. By reinstating chopped-and-screwed raps over jacked Swishahouse 808 claps, Salem pushes both songs straight into the uncanny valley. Innovation and interpretation give way to self-parody and mimicry.

This is not a one-hit wonder situation, or even an album with only one good song. With King Night, Salem exhausts all its resources in a singular moment, which leaves the rest of the record to suffer through its own paralysis and mediocrity. At one point, I would have guessed the members of Salem just weren’t trying. Now, it’s more like they just have nowhere else to go.

By Evan Hanlon

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