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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Salem Claims the Throne of Spook at 103 Harriet

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 4:01 AM

Salem's Jack Donoghue at 103 Harriet last night.
  • Salem's Jack Donoghue at 103 Harriet last night.
Salem
The Soft Moon
March 30, 2011
@ 103 Harriet

Better than: A mashup of Lil B's worst rhyming over a cheap horror film soundtrack.

Many came to 103 Harriet last night expecting a disaster, and understandably so: Already in its brief period of notoriety, Salem -- the lead proponent of a new breed of deathly downbeat electronic pop -- has developed a reputation for apathetic and hollow live shows. The Michigan trio's early performances, most notably a set at SXSW 2010 that got the band booed offstage, were so poorly received that they managed to nearly kill the buzz on what was one of last year's most talked-about new artists. And in interviews -- the ones they weren't sleeping through -- the members of Salem claimed they didn't even care whether their shows were any good.

But that was last year. Introducing itself to San Francisco last night, Salem disappointed anyone looking to witness a trainwreck. Instead, backed by a trio of stuttering strobe lights and a set of fog machines that would make Pacifica residents jealous, the band delivered an overwhelming spectacle of synthetic gloom. 

Salem's John Holland
  • Salem's John Holland
With torpid music that owes as much to the chopped and screwed slurrings of Southern rap as it does to traditional gothy synth-pop, one quality Salem can claim (or could claim before spawning a thousand imitators) is originality. Other artists are using the same tools to make similarly constructed music -- see chillwave -- but Salem was the first to use elements of pop and rap in pursuit of such a thoroughly dark sound.

Also, the band can claim musical controversy: several of its songs include questionable white-boy rapping from member Jack Donoghue, with lyrics about rape, suicide, drugs -- y'know, all that stuff that seemed downright shocking before Odd Future. (A side note: Odd Future's Tyler the Creator was seen lurking at Salem's L.A. show earlier this week.) Donoghue's not what you'd call a traditionally skilled rapper, and last night his emphatic utterings made for the most difficult parts of Salem's set to deal with. In between various chants, the blonde-mopped and ball-capped Donoghue played big-pimping rapper on songs like "Trapdoor" and "Sick," affecting all the shirt-shaking, hand-waving, and crowd-teasing of your basic MC. Every other word in Donoghue's raps was "bitch," it seemed -- he used it as a rhythmic crutch as much as a subject -- but at least his voice wasn't lowered deceptively in pitch like it is on Salem's recordings.

Salem's Heather Marlatt
  • Salem's Heather Marlatt

Far better were the moments when Donoghue retreated to his table of gadgets (where a mysterious fourth member lurked in a ski mask) and let Heather Marlatt wield the mic. Her airy moaning could barely be heard over the cathedrals of ominous synthesizer and earthquake bass, but Salem is at its best when it lets all its spooky elements mix evenly. The rapping of Donoghue, a former art school student and American Apparel employee, raises issues of authenticity -- but those can be argued away (and does anyone really care about technically good rapping anymore?) More problematic is the clumsiness he contributes to an otherwise intricately clouded sonic landscape. With the wisps of Marlatt's voice lingering just above this simmering cauldron of doom on "Traxx," the full scope of Salem's abilities became clear. She even overrode the nominal cheesiness of the song's prison-cell-door-slamming-shut sample.

Salem's Heather Marlatt
  • Salem's Heather Marlatt
But it was on "King Night" -- with all members sequestered behind their sound machines and eerie choral samples taking the lead -- that Salem hit its peak last night. As the background strobes flickered indifferently, and an orange stage-level light cast a fiery glow through the fog, the song's high-pitched intro arrived. Soon it burst into a deep and unsettling throb. "King Night" dominates every area of the sound spectrum, from gurgling bass to piercing clatter, and hearing it felt like taking in a grand panorama of hell. It sounded like a beautiful disaster -- not the kind we were expecting.

Strobe attack!
  • Strobe attack!
Critic's Notebook

By the way: There's a quite a bit of scandalous background info on Salem -- and various stupid phrases we music writers have invented to describe its music -- which you should probably familiarize yourself with if this subject is all new to you.

Personal bias: I wrote a somewhat dismissive piece about Salem a few months back. The high and low points of last night's show only reinforced my view the band is neither as fantastic nor as awful as it's been made out to be.

"Uh, I'm suddenly getting tired": Salem went on at 12:05 a.m. this morning, and by the end of the set at 12:45, much of the back of the room had emptied out. It could have been that people wanted to go home and sleep. But the slow exodus seemed to accelerate whenever Donoghue started rapping.

Opener: S.F.'s the Soft Moon played "What It's Over," the centerpiece of its rightly lauded debut album, onstage last night. With a set that otherwise barreled at a furious pace into howling blackness, the slow sting of this song was a refreshing shift -- and a rare one. Main member Luis Vasquez said afterward that it was only the third time the band had played it live.

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Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown, follow Ian S. Port @iPORT, and like us at Facebook.com/SFAllShookDown.

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Ian S. Port

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