Salem seemed briefly ubiquitous in 2010, but history has been kinder to this midwestern electronic trio than anyone would’ve predicted from their rapid rise and equally rapid dismissal. That’s largely due to timing. The members of Salem—vocalists and producers Jack Donoghue, John Holland, and Heather Marlatt—fused narcotized, chopped-and-screwed hip-hop to even drowsier dance music, and their messy, torpid debut album, King Night, caught a certain kind of lightning in a bottle, defining a microgenre called “witch house.” Few artists tried to replicate their sound, and considering the album’s serious flaws—the pitched-down raps on “Trapdoor,” for instance, caught heat for cultural appropriation—that’s on balance not a bad thing. But in the years since, a wave of newer electronic and pop microgenres has built on Salem’s legacy. The links between witch house and, say, vaporwave or nightcore are a matter more of lineage than of sound, but any comprehensive history of the past decade’s underground electronic music ought to mention King Night in its first chapters.
By 2012, Salem had all but flamed out, and for eight years nobody heard much from them. Then in May, popular Internet radio station NTS broadcast a new Salem mixtape, Stay Down, and in September the group dropped the twinkling, slow-burning single “Starfall.” Salem have provided few details about what happened during their long hiatus, but they didn’t return as the same group they used to be. For one thing, Marlatt is no longer involved—in an Instagram post from April, she accuses her bandmates of forcing her out. On their self-released new album, Fires in Heaven (distributed by Mad Decent), Holland and Donoghue sound tighter and more focused than they did the first time around, and the pitched-down raps are thankfully less frequent. They wield their sparse, brittle percussion and imposing fogbanks of synth with a better sense for how to articulate the beauty and sadness buried in their decaying pop songs. For their “Starfall” video, Donoghue and Holland assembled a montage of their adventures chasing tornadoes in the southern U.S., and the imagery underscores the song’s atmosphere of tragedy and dread. From the beginning, Salem have toyed with the ideas of rot and dissolution, and as our country edges toward collapse, they’ve found splendor in embracing oblivion. v