Wednesday, August 25, 2010

‘New’ ‘Genre’ Alert: Which House? Witch House

Posted by on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 4:52 PM

Well, I know this “new” genre has been gestating for a few months, so posting about it now doesn’t exactly put me at the cutting-edge, finger-on-pulse, ear-to-ground forefront of web-savvy blog buzz. But hey, we’re in Nashville! Nashville loves to stay just behind the crest of the hipness wave, no?

So remember when people started name-checking “glo-fi” and “chillwave”? Basically, a crop bands — Neon Indian, Memory Tapes, Toro y Moi, Washed Out, et cetera — started to emerge about a year ago, using electronic instrumentation and various production techniques to make digital recordings sound analog. It certainly wasn’t a new trend — artists like Ariel Pink have been doing it for a while — but when united by a semi-official moniker and the power of the Internet, BOOM! It was a trend. Well, when it comes to semi-official (and seemingly pretentious) monikers, trends and especially Internet power, I think this latest wave of artists has to take the “WUT?” Cake. The blanket term is “witch house,” though it’s also interchangeable with “drag,” “screwgaze” and — my absolute favorite expression ever — “crunk shoegaze.”

What is witch house? Witch house, upon listening, sounds to me like nothing more than the latest surge in goth-y industrial music. It features a lot of synthesizers, drum machines, loops, droning repetition and ethereal, manipulated, indiscernible vocals. Also, the bands mostly have curiously punctuated/capitalized names that I genuinely have no idea how to pronounce. Oh, and many of them are heavily influenced by Southern rap. That’s not a joke. It’s where the whole “crunk” bit comes from. By the way, if you just want to skip all of the analysis and go straight to making fun of this trend, Brooklyn Vegan has a thread that you can pile on.

Alright, so there are a few flagship bands of this movement — if you can call it a movement, considering the fact that its development has basically been entirely web-based, and “local scenes aren't as important” as online music development. There’s San Fransisco’s oOoOO, who are totally just draggy, downtrodden electro goth. Then you’ve got the veterans, like Michigan’s Salem — they’ve existed since 2006! — with whom the Southern rap influence is actually genuinely noticeable: crunk, thumping house beats with swirling, ghostly synths and spooky vocals. Honestly, Salem is about the closest I’ve gotten to really liking any of this material. “Dance or slit your wrists … your call”-type of stuff.

Also notable are NYC’s White Ring — breathy synths and some mopey/disturbed young woman caterwauling over a distant-sounding drum machine — as well as †‡†, Gr†ll Gr†ll and ///▲▲▲\\\. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to Googling/pronouncing those absurd names, by the way. Drowned in Sound had a pretty good overview of the artists at the forefront of this whole damn thing a couple months back. Also, Houston's Disaro Records seems to be where a lot of this stuff is coming from.

So. What?? This whole, “We invented a new genre!” thing is a pretty enormous red flag for me personally. Nothing says, “We are very young and solipsistic and can’t put things into any sort of historical context” like telling people you’ve invented a new genre that just turns out to be a mash-up or twist on very established genres. Then again, the bands themselves aren’t typically the guilty parties when it comes to the nomenclature thing — it’s usually some longwinded music journalist … ahem … who comes up with that part.

Really, witch house is just another offshoot of electronic music. This time it’s spiked with industrial tones — rather than electro-pop ones, as with chillwave — that is given credence by the hipster cognoscenti and blog-buzz syndicate. But the fascinating, unique part about it to me is this: In a Pitchfork interview, Christopher Dexter Greenspan (the dude from oOoOO) said the following:

I feel like so much of music development happens online now. Local scenes aren't as important. Kids in Florida or Paris can seek out whatever music they want, and bands around the world can seek out like-minded artists from anywhere for inspiration. So I don't know if it can be called a 'scene' in the traditional sense of the word, but it seems like there's definitely a growing group of people making aesthetically similar music that people they've never met are calling 'drag'.

Hmm. For a guy with an asinine band name, that’s actually a relatively forward-thinking and informed-sounding statement. I can’t say that witch house/drag/screwgaze is my jump-off, per se — well … Salem and oOoOO are growing on me a little bit — but I do think we’re seeing the beginning of a new phase of musical evolution. I imagine, given the fickle, rapidly developing nature of modern media and the youngsters involved in it, we’re going to see something like this pop up every year or two: Like-minded and impossibly hip, excruciatingly tech-savvy young people finding one another through the Webs and creating something that makes half of the blogosphere cringe and the other half bristle with anticipation.

In the coming years, be on the lookout for the following genres:
Franken-Steinwave: “Monster Mash” style early-’60s pop crossed with vocoders and looped samples of rabbis reciting Hebrew prayers
Snore core: Bootlegged copies of Bruce Hornsby records
SPOOG: Show tunes intercut with dissonant blasts of atonal static
Post-spunk/bukkake-rock: Krautrock with vocals replaced by sound bites from porn films
Wave-wave: VHS recordings of the ocean … produced by Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo
Fuck-You-fi: Remixes of Cee-Lo's "Fuck You." Over and over and over again.

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