[Ed: no Spotify link for this one]
WITCH HOUSE AND WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT US?
2010 was the tail-end of an interesting time for music.
While the charts were saturated with heavily produced, sweet-as-sugar-and-just-as-healthy-too pop like Katy Perry’s Firework and Justin Bieber’s Baby, and the alternative scene was churning out Strokes and Libertines (un)inspired landfill indie, over on the internet something altogether darker had been going on for a number of years.
A nebulous cluster of music sites, sometimes referred to as the blogosphere, took to sharing a different kind of music. Solo efforts recorded in bedrooms around the world by artists with ironic names. Music with an invariably lo-fi aesthetic; partially due to the DIY nature of home recording, but also as a stylistic choice – a direct challenge to the glossy plastic sounds of the pop charts.
And the distribution method itself was a radical response to the commercial mainstream too. This was a time before the popularisation of streaming services. A time when the mp3 file reigned supreme. If you wanted to listen to a song on your iPod Nano, your choice was between buying a CD or downloading it from iTunes. Of course, you wouldn’t – whisper it – download it illegally. After all, you wouldn’t steal a car…
But over on the blogosphere, particularly in the earlier years, the music was free to anyone who was interested. Posts were almost always accompanied by Mediafire download links, giving the music away for free in zip folders. Just click and fill your hard drive with as much lo-fi weirdo goodness as you can handle.
Pseudo garage/surf rock was particularly well suited to the gritty, punk vibe, and while many of the groups from this genre fell by the wayside, like The Barbaras, Charlie and the Moonhearts, and False Jesii to name a few, others such as Times New Viking, No Age and Wavves all found some wider commercial success. Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall are still releasing critically acclaimed records to this day.
But lo-fi didn’t only mean guitar rock. Hip-hop beats, alternative dubstep, freak folk, noise, drone and fuzzy psych-funk could all be found in the ether. 2010 even saw the break out of rap collective Odd Future, which launched the careers of household names like Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator, as well as underground favourites Earl Sweatshirt and Syd Tha Kyd of The Internet.
Under such creative conditions, genre became an extremely fluid concept, allowing space for new styles to emerge.
And one of the most interesting styles was witch house (or VVitch Havs, depending on your pretension/irony level.)
A loose collective of artists making creepy, moody, atmospheric synth music, often with heavily distorted vocals hissing strange incantations or eldritch threats. For a time, it seemed that the artists making Witch House were in a competition to make the most unintelligible band name: oOoOO, GL▲SS †33†H, †‡†, and ///▲▲▲\ were all genuine entries in my iTunes library. But there was a lot of musical talent in the scene too, and a few of the more polished acts rose to the surface: Crystal Castles found the greatest level of success (even collaborating with Robert Smith of The Cure), but labels like NotNotFun, Woodsist, and Night People cropped up to put underground hits to cassette and vinyl from artists including Salem, Purity Ring, Balam Acab, and Pocahaunted.
Pocahaunted, as you may be able to guess from the name, are not the kind of act that would make it in this day and age.
Back then, the discourse around cultural appropriation had not yet become widespread, and so it was largely let slip that their music was infused with a semi-ironic, dumbed-down pastiche of Native American folk tradition: all chants and breathy howls. Their first release, back in 2006, was entitled Moccasinging. Neither of the main band members, Amanda Brown and Bethany Cosentino, had any direct Native American lineage.
Clumsy cultural insensitivities aside, Pocahaunted were one of the original acts making witch house style-music (the band themselves used the term hypnagogic pop) and their early long-form, dusky psych-outs were something entirely new and original. It sounded fresh and exciting.
But by the time 2010’s Passage rolled out with a vinyl release – long before vinyl made a return to the mainstream – the novelty was beginning to wear off. The reception of the record was lukewarm at best, the prevailing sense being that style had left substance somewhere in its wake long ago.
They disbanded not long after to pursue other projects. Cosentino and Passage‘s producer Bobb Bruno took a sharp u-turn and focussed on Best Coast: an act that eventually dropped the lo-fi blogosphere aesthetic and started making sun-drenched pop punk about boys, surfing, cats and weed. Passage contributor Cameron Stallones returned to the psychedelia of his solo project Sun Araw, and Brown formed an underground supergroup (of sorts) called Vibes.
Witch house carried on a little longer, with other strangely named acts making droning tunes you might find on the soundtrack to a schlocky horror film. But after a while it died out.
And the blogosphere didn’t last too long either. As the music industry started paying attention and signing acts up, the crackdown on free distribution of content began. File download links would be deactivated within hours of being posted, blogs were shut down, and the scene became more professional.
I’ve always found horror fascinating as a genre – particularly on screen.
Beyond the pure shock factor and jump scares, horror has a tendency to perfectly reflect a society’s anxieties, giving them form in a monstrous ‘other’ that stalks the streets at night, lurking in the shadows. And this tradition hails back before film to gothic literature – or even further.
The hooded monks of gothic horror could be read as a symbol for the peoples’ uneasiness about the level of control that arcane religious institutions, with their strange rituals, had over their lives. Lovecraft’s strange tales of mythos were a response to the horrors of the First World War and, with the wider availability of the motor car, the ability to independently access remote communities full of strangers. Halloween and other slasher films handled the dread of American suburbia: living in a community of strangers, with no idea what they get up to behind their white picket fences.
Mythology is full of monsters that wrought destruction on city states, much like natural disasters. Dracula preying on young virgins could be anxiety about burgeoning sexuality. Or is it more political than that? After all, Dracula is a count – a nobleman hiding away in his castle, remote from the villagers, preying on their lifeblood to survive. Frankenstein encapsulated societal fears about the rapid progress of science and the sense that experimentation may cross the line into playing God. Ghost stories and haunted houses contain fragments of truth about our lived realities: that memories of lost loved ones really do come back and haunt our consciousnesses. Witches have so often, both in horror stories (from fairy tales to Macbeth) and tragic real-life incidents, represented fears about unruly women, whose insubordination was (and is) seen as a threat to the dominance of the patriarchy.
So if horror in the media reflects the society that craves it, what does the shortlived proliferation of the horror genre stylings of witch house say about the music industry it grew up in?
Well, there’s an argument to be made that, in an industry that wanted them to be Katy Perry, the independent nature of the blogosphere allowed young women like Brown and Cosentino to express their creativity in a way that was frowned upon by the mainstream. The DIY nature of the scene was democratic: anyone who made something interesting was welcome. Rather than a fear of the creativity of young women, witch house was a celebration of it.
Passage is far from my favourite record in my collection from a musical perspective, but it’s a fascinating relic of a very interesting time for music.
Terror has never sounded so good. Hallowe’en treats just for you.