Saturday, 23 October 2010

Genre deconstruction: Witch House Pt 1

First rumblings about the ‘witch house’ genre began spreading on the internet just before Summer 2010 and had finally filtered through to mainstream media such as The Guardian by August. Before it’s even fully taken off, the internet naysayers and musos have begun to rubbish the genre as nonsense and already subverted by advances / devolutions in already established fields.

It’s been listed as goth, library music, drone, doom ambient, ghost trance, glo-fi, post-punk, hauntology, ghost drone, spectral pop, drag, were house, haunted house, and an extension of chill-wave: either way it appears the leaders of the genre-coining movement, or the bands themselves, have been channelling Nathan Barley for inspiration.

It could also be considered Facebook or Myspace music; a genre growing from disparate groups of people who never meet but produce and share ghostly influenced music - like electro-pop in a morphine slurry. First glances show a collective of young artists, and I suspect so young that the full extent of the 80s and 90s music scenes have bypassed them in a rather concrete way. The term ‘drag’ is supposed to reference a Houston sound perpetuated in the 90s by DJ Screw and similar crews: the major addition to their sluggish music was the strong influence of cough-syrup codeine and fizzy juice known as purple drank - it frequently led to deaths, including DJ Screw at the age of 29, who turned down record deals to remain with his purple drank crew.

The music, his crew and codeine came first, and he remained in his working-class lifestyle downing syrup mixed with Sprite until his death. Drug abuse was experienced as culture, and the culture drove on the music - a move away into the shiny world of record deals could have signed the death knell for purple drank beats, and they remained true to their addiction and music vision.

The witch house band Salem jumped on DJ Screw’s legacy and kept the chopped-up, sluggish and ethereal quality while working in synths and vocals along a Boris Karloff theme. Other artists chuck in electro-rock, or dub, or ambient, but the genre seems entirely based on themes of the occult and the paranormal, albeit through a psychedelic aperture. A side-look at dubstep suggests the likes of Burial helped to add some ethereal inspiration to the genre. .

One of the labels behind the witch house sound is Tri Angle, founded by Robin Carolan. He has been quoted as saying: “Hip-hop and rnb, in essence, is a commercial kind of music. But when you get down to the nitty gritty of it, it’s sonically at least really strange music. And there’s so much you can do with that. I’m surprised it’s taken so long for it to start being experimented with by people who aren’t in that world.”

And for me, that’s the crux of it - “people who aren’t in that world”. Houston’s drag hip-hop / street-rap artists in the 90s ran a merry-go-round with codeine syrup abuse, plenty of whom didn’t survive their ‘muse’, and they were predominantly from poorer African-American backgrounds. Witch house or whatever you want to call it, comes from people who saw little of that era first hand simply due to age differences, and they come from markedly different backgrounds - in some way it reminds me of a marketing plan to extract a culture-specific genre/style and tweak it for the mass market. Strip off the syrup abuse, add in genres tapping a definite trend, and it is reborn with little contemplative thought for the founding fathers who did not survive long enough to see purple drank music without the purple drank aspect.

Tom Ewing of The Guardian disagrees, suggesting: “What witch house tells me is that genres now aren't exercises in innovation or marketing, so much as ways of framing an experience. And if you won't feel open to that experience, your investigation of it won't get far.”

So, underground trend marketing or framing an experience? Stay tuned to this blog for the second part in Witch House deconstruction, where we delve into the artists, their naming conventions and their different interpretations of the sound.


  1. All artists listen to music as they grow up; emulate that music and
    hopefully, add innovations or variations to it.
    Artists always get it wrong but getting it wrong frequently creates
    new forms of musics.
    As cool and interesting as the Purple Drank music is, DJ Screw grew up listening to older hip hop and R&B and created music in that genre with his own twists on it (specifically recording vocals and tracks,slowing them down and representing South Houston, Texas in an admirable fashion).

    You won't find journalists who rag on him for doing that; for being influenced and reframing the music he why on earth should you rag on some kids who were inspired by that music and added their own personal interests (so called witch house)? To me it's spurious to critique it in that way and I suspect that the critique has more than it's fair share of reverse racism in it, merely because those musicians are young and white.

    Besides, a large number of 'witch house' groups (not that I'm an expert) have limited edition CDR releases and are almost impossible to who is exploiting who in this scenario?

    Long live the innovation of DJ Screw..............long live the fact that a band like Salem, loved and was inspired by his music and put their
    own personal touch on it's form.

    Long live creativity!

  2. Perhaps you should read the rest of the witch house articles on this blog - there's been a lot of positive feedback from witch house artists, and disaro records were pleased with the isvolt review for being "detailed and honest". If you check out the second part of this article and the follow up review you'll see this isn't about raggin on kids, it was about asking all the questions being raised by the witch-house lovers and haters, and seeing where the truth lies (part 2 of this article). I agree, long live creativity; everything needs a starting point and I do see potential.... here in the UK witch house is pretty much dismissed as a fad, indeed I got abuse for even considering it a genre.

    As for the racism comment, please reconsider just how casually you reached for that prejudice - don't confuse comments on culture as racist rhetoric.