31 October 2018

In the world of contemporary music, originality is king. With technological opportunity and musical innovation at an all-time high, new and experimental sounds are being created at an unprecedented pace. The life-span of a style or genre is growing increasingly short: musical movements can flourish and recede in the space of a few months, gobbled up and discarded by the news cycle as soon as they begin to gain a foothold in the popular consciousness. In our new Genre Focus series, we aim to highlight some of the weird and wonderful styles from the outer reaches of the modern musical landscape, giving you the chance to get acquainted with nebulous sounds from beyond the realm of the easily categorisable. Seeing as it’s Halloween, we thought we’d kick things off with what is without doubt the spookiest subgenre to have arisen in the past ten years: witch house.

Briefly entering the spotlight at the end of the last decade, witch house was an amorphous movement that never fully coalesced into a ‘proper’ genre. Rooted in dark, beat-focused electronic music that eschewed the speedier tempos of dance, it was built around a druggy, psychedelic template that undoubtedly borrowed from some of the more experimental trip-hop of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, with production techniques lifted from chopped-and-screwed hip-hop of DJ Screw.

The name itself is misleading: witch house is emphatically not a subgenre of house music. It’s not based around a danceable 4/4 beat, but more often around a sluggish half-time crawl, and it replaces the pep and vigour of house with a tranquilised, ketamine-induced lethargy. Quite how it received its deceptive moniker is debated: it’s thought that Travis Egedy of the band Pictureplane coined the term half-jokingly in reference to some of the darker electronic music that was being produced in 2009.

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Sonically, witch house was marked by its use of distorted samples and ghostly atmospheres, with synthesizers and pitch-shifted vocals often being manipulated through effects to create a tripped-out, hallucinatory effect. Sounds were blurred and obscured by effects, stretched and mangled into new and unfamiliar shapes and textures. Traditional instruments may have been used, but never without a thick smog of reverb. Melodies were provided by synths or processed samples, built around beat collages and shrouded in an ever-present backdrop of ambience and atmosphere. The music possessed an immersive, entrancing feel – at its best, conjuring a spellbinding sense of drama and grandeur (see: Holy Other) that was reminiscent of the thematically aligned worlds of goth and emo.

It may not have been house, but it was undoubtedly witchlike, cloaked in mystery and obscured by darkness. The genre was defined as much by a specific sound as the aesthetics and iconography that surrounded it. Names of groups were often either occult-related (Salem, White Ring) or made up of oddball typography (‘†‡†’ or ‘///▲▲▲\\\’) with track titles taking influence from the mystical and arcane. Album art invariably incorporated similar themes. These influences weren’t as overt as those found in other genres – the satanism associated with heavy rock metal, for example – but acted more like a mood board, reflecting on the general tone and feel of the music.

Witch house emerged from the more general “beat scene” that encompassed various other microgenres in American music at the time, the most notable being chillwave. Arguably the yin to witch house’s yang, it was built on similar musical foundations but with an inverse tone and set of references (with sun, sea, surf and chill vibes, it was the surf rock to witch house’s goth rock). This entire beat-focused movement itself developed from experimentations with the original template that hip-hop beatmakers laid out in the 80’s and 90’s.

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Innovators like DJ Krush and DJ Screw, some of the first to venture out of the more conventional hip-hop framework, paved the way for imaginative bedroom producers with access to advanced digital tools and an abundance of material to sample. If you listen closely, you can pick out in witch house aspects pulled from a variety of genres (the expansive atmospheres of dub music, the introverted moodiness of goth rock and post-punk) and in that sense it’s one of the first musical movements to truly benefit from the power of the internet, from the ability to easily access a wide musical landscape and draw equally from all of its corners.

First appearing in the media in 2009, witch house was quickly seized upon by a press overeager to identify emerging trends and appear ahead of the curve. Many of those grouped under it’s label rejected the categorisation, preferring not to be associated with what seemed like a gimmick-y trend. The group most closely tied to the movement was the aptly-named Salem, who enjoyed a brief fizz of popularity and acclaim with their debut EP ‘Water’ and provoked a genuine buzz that continued throughout 2009 and 2010.

Though Salem were a band, most acts associated with the witch house tag were solo producers and beatmakers, working from the confines of their bedroom: artists like Balam Acab, Holy Other and oOoOO produced dark, emotive and atmospheric tracks that were often shared through online platforms like YouTube, and (for a time) reported on heavily in many online publications. Many acts were self-released, but some labels sprung up around the genre, most notably the Brooklyn-via-London imprint Tri Angle. The label cut its teeth releasing music from Holy Other, Balam Acab and The Haxan Cloak, but swiftly morphed into one of modern electronic music’s most influential hubs, launching the careers of several producers that remain highly relevant today.

As swiftly as it appeared, witch house was gone, receding into the hazy smoke from which it came. After the genre’s initial buzz peaked and the press moved on, many of the more amateur members of the movement drifted out of the spotlight – but that’s not to say that it had no lasting impact. Many associated acts have found real success: producers like Clams Casino and The Haxan Cloak have gone on to work with major names in hip-hop and pop, and musicians such as Zola Jesus, Purity Ring and How To Dress Well are still regularly releasing music, carving out successful careers of their own. The shadowy aesthetic and tone that the genre inspired is still prevalent in certain musical circles. And most importantly, the witch house Reddit page is still alive and well, and it seems that further generations of amateur producers are still drawing inspiration from witch house’s gloom and drama.

The rise and fall of witch house says more about the music industry in the age of the internet than it does about the music itself. The name was coined as a joke, and most artists rejected it – but due to the power of hype and the nature of the blogosphere, it caught on – and here I am, eight years later, writing about it. It’s also a brilliant example of the indistinct and transitory nature of the modern genre – what once were firmly established categories, enduring throughout decades and inspiring countless offshoots and subcultures (think rock’n’roll) are now flash-in-the-pan buzzwords, lasting only as long as the internet’s perpetual hype cycle will allow. Witch house may have vanished into the darkness, but it’s ghostly presence will haunt the internet forever – and rightly so.

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