(Photo lifted from this site)
Today we really should be calling ourselves Weirdest Genre in the World, because today’s band, Mascara (or M△S▴C△RA, if you really insist), is just the tip of a giant iceberg of weirdness called witch house, or sometimes haunted house, or occasionally drag, or even (wait for it) “rape gaze.” Although the band that coined that last term has since disowned it, apparently deciding that no amount of hipper-than-thou ironic detachment can actually make rape seem like a viable metaphor for a new style of music.
So what the hell is “witch house”? It’s a new “micro-genre” (a really pretentious term we just stole from the Village Voice—thanks, guys!) that’s made up predominantly of bedroom electronic producers who combine slowed-down, sludgy beats with ghostly filtered vocals, lo-fi synths, ambient noise and distorted samples of other, often highly recognizable tunes. The results sound like a somewhat cobbled-together combination of chopped ‘n’ screwed hip-hop, goth-rock, darkwave, drone metal and that old Cure cassette you left on the dashboard too long in the late ’80s.
Many of the artists creating witch house protest that they’re not really part of any “scene” or creating music in any particular “genre.” And while it’s true that witch house artists are scattered all over the world, they for damn sure keep Interweb tabs on each other and style-bite with gusto. For example, the vast majority of witch housers (witchies?) mix numbers and symbols into their names or just pick names that are virtually impossible to Google, all apparently in an effort to maintain an air of mystery and underground cred: GL▲SS †33†H, ///▲▲▲\\\, GR†LLGR†LL, oOoOO (one of the godfathers of witch house, actually) and my personal favorite, ▲.
Wait, scratch that: My personal favorite is ▲)╪(▼, which according to their YouTube videos is pronounced “Whispering Sanctity.” Whispering Sanctity is probably some elaborate witch house piss-take, but when your entire scene has already become such a popular Internet meme that it’s inspired its own band name generator, the lines between self-parody and actual parody can get pretty blurry.
The most famous practitioners of witch house are a trio from Michigan called Salem (or S4LEM) who have already become rather legendary for seeming to be almost totally disinterested in being a band. Their somnolent performance at South by Southwest in 2010 is famous for being one of the few documented concerts at which jaded, skinny-jeaned hipsters, who usually passively consume whatever awful shit got at least a 7.8 in Pitchfork, actually booed the band off the stage. They mumble their way through interviews; their first EP was called Yes I Smoke Crack and at least one of the band’s members, John Holland, claims he really does, or did.
Maybe we should have dedicated this whole post to Salem and their uniquely burnout version of witch house, which really does sound like it was created by a bunch of druggy Midwestern kids who stumbled on this sound by accident because their only reference points were Dirty South hip-hop, stoner metal, Top 40 mall music, and their own sad, pathetic lives. But there’s something kind of crass and obvious about Salem’s music that I just can’t get past. Listening to a song like “Redlights” is like trying to eat one of those horrible fast-food mash-ups like a taco pizza or a Philly cheesesteak burger or Potachos—all those delicious elements should add up to something tasty, but instead it’s just confusing and kinda gross.
So instead, we’ll focus on this other witch house band who call themselves M△S▴C△RA, if for no other reason than because they have at least one song (in the vid below) that, even by witch house standards, is insanely creepy and sounds like it was made by gravers in the midst of a ketamine bender that included back-to-back screenings of the Blair Witch movies. [Update: The old video was taken down, so we've swapped it for another track called "Sonnambula." Thanks to reader Lesa for pointing out the dead link.] We also get a kick out of the fact that, based on the performance videos on this site, the M△S▴C△RA dudes actually appear to be happy witchies. At least the one who’s not wearing a mask keeps cracking a smile. And unlike most witch house, a lot of their stuff is actually uptempo and even kinda dancey. (By which I mean, “doesn’t suck.” By which I also mean, “Yes, nearly all witch house sucks. A lot.”)
We know almost nothing about M△S▴C△RA, but that’s par for the course with your average witch house band—except for Salem, they’re all a giant pain in the ass to research. We can tell you that they have an EP out called Black Mass, they’re apparently based in (or at least near) New York, they have some association with the AMDISCS label, and they’ve collaborated with another witch house artist called Ceremonial Dagger, whose official witchie handle is so symbol-ridden we can’t even begin to figure out how to render it. (You can see it here.) [Update: Turns out M△S▴C△RA—or Mascara, as he’s disappointingly calling himself these days—is the work of a dude from Orange County, California named Shane Shumate. He’s now less into witch house and more into dark hip-hop and dance music. Less weird, but probably pays more bills.]
So ladies and gentlemen, prepare to have some M△S▴C△RA smeared across your face. Make sure all the lights are on before you hit the play button.
P.S. Big ups to one of our readers, Spoon, for suggesting that we cover the witch house scene. We were aware of its existence, mostly because of Salem, but until Spoon suggested we check out GL▲SS †33†H and ///▲▲▲\\\ (aka Void, apparently), we hadn’t fully appreciated its weirdness.