SALEM

King Night

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    8
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AllMusic Review by

A dark mystique has surrounded Salem since the trio released its debut EP, Yes I Smoke Crack, in 2008. The ominous imagery of their album artwork, the tales of John Holland's teenage prostitution and drug use and their place among the creators of the witch house/drag style gave the band something of a mythic quality even before their first full-length, King Night, was released. Over the course of their prolific singles and EPs, Holland, John Donoghue and Heather Marlatt shaped a sound that was as distinctive as it was improbable, fusing beats descended from juke and Southern hip-hop, electronics with a goth bent and shoegazing guitars into something deeply weird and trippy but also surprisingly natural, as if those elements had just been waiting to be combined. On the surface, goth and hip-hop may not have much in common, but they often share a bleak romanticism that Salem has in spades. King Night's title track blends choral vocals, suffocating synths and a tinny beat that is so obviously, proudly mechanical that it adds extra coldness while nodding to hip-hop. “Killer” boasts guitars so heavy they could have come from a Sunn 0))) album, while “Traxx” uses a sample of rattling chains as percussion. Thanks to having three writers and vocalists, the band is also good at adding depth and variety to a style that could seem like a novelty. Marlatt sounds like a fallen angel, adding credence to Salem's goth undercurrents with darkly ethereal tones that evoke the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil on “Frost” and the beautiful “Redlights,” one of the band’s earliest and most definitive songs. Any small rays of hope raised by her songs are dashed by Donoghue's tracks, which very well may be the heart of Salem's unsettling darkness. He brings the trio’s hip-hop roots to the fore, rapping with a roll so slow he sounds like a zombie drinking sizzurp mixed with laudanum. His tracks are lulling and filled with dread at the same time, as on “Trapdoor,” where he intones “I can’t feel shit” over a looped sample of a car crash, or on “Sick,” where the refrain might as well be “six six six”. Meanwhile, Holland's tracks are somewhere in the middle, with his voice blurred into another wisp of Salem's fog. He emphasizes texture on “Release da Boar,” where echo-locating reverb and delay are piled on top of dead-of-night shoegaze with a sluggish pulse, and on “Hound,” where bongos take the song in an unexpected direction. Throughout all of King Night, the feeling of a séance being held or a spell being cast is palpable, but Salem's ability to be affecting and menacing at the same time is pure alchemy.

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