Is witch house, the dark genre du jour, really scary? We’ve been meaning to figure this out for a while. Witch house, or drag, or zombie rave, or dirge disco is hard to define, but we’re gonna — it’s slow-moving electro-pop that’s unified by a terror quotient that belies the music’s mellow bpms.
The dark and ominous Internets needs a soundtrack, and this is it. Here are ten lo-fi downtempo artists, counting down from just rated R to the musicians that are truly terrifying.
Travis Egedy, better known as Denver’s Pictureplane, made up the term to describe his spooky, electronic work back in 2009. It was a joke then, but now it’s real. Thanks to Pictureplane, that zone of sound overlapping shoegaze, industrial, EBM, metal, downtempo, and lo-fi now has a name that journalists can abuse. And as you can imagine from his genre-coining, the dude is kind of funny, which is maybe why he samples Stevie Nicks on “Gothstar,” Paperplane’s ’80s redux version of lo-fi horror house.
Creep make what you might call accessible witch house. Almost, almost pop, their songs feature soulful guest spots by members of xx, and Nina Skye. They’re into lo-fi drum machines, addicted to reverb, and love to distort their bass riffs. But Lauren Flax and Lauren Dillard, the masterminds behind the sound, hail from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. So not that scary, really.
Although the allegedly Mexican †‡† (“Ritualz” to those without ASCII keyboards) prefers to leave his identity in a haze of mystery, his music speaks for him, in volumes. His drag-style shoegaze-meets-EDM energy alternates bone-scraping beats with ethereal synth for good measure. It seems scary, but turns out to be almost pleasant. Don’t tell, but “Psychic Teens” actually sounds like Anything Box.
From Michigan, John Holland, Heather Marlatt, and Jack Donaghue have been layering murky synth with chopped and screwed beats since 2006, making them the elder statesmen of witch house. Call them proto-witch house. They stretch and distort freaky samples beyond all hope of recognition, and we’re left with a soundscape of gothic darkness. Extra scary points because frontman Jack Donoghue is currently dating Courtney Love.
Although he’s tried his best to keep it under wraps, the secret’s out that oOoOO is a San Franciscan named Christopher Dexter Greenspan who weaves gothic chillwave. His specialties are spooky, dreamy lady vocals and minor key shifts. With r&b rhythms and trance interludes, it’s definitely dance music — just for dancing in slo-mo, codeine dream. oOoOO‘s gentle vibes elicits more dread than horror, but it’s unsettling in that carsick, don’t-notice-it-til-you-throw-up kind of way.
Experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin spends time in his Brooklyn studio creating analog scratches and woos, Blade Runner-style. The feel? A bare lightbulb buzzes in some dystopian, drugged megacity in space, natch. “Returnal” has an electronic EBM vibe, distorted bass cutting against the Tron-like feel. “Replica” does the same analog futuristic work with a repetitive acoustic piano riff. Oneohtrix Point Never terrifies in a universe-questioning, existential way. Which is just the worst!
Balam Acab is a Mayan demi-god who creates rainbows, as well as the moniker of one digital rainbow-crunching Alec Koone. He doesn’t like to be identified, and yet in a strange twist, one of his songs was in a L’Oreal ad featuring Beyonce. But don’t think this means his music’s anything like top 40. Although he’s a baby-faced 20-year-old who lives with his parents in leafy Maryland, the ghostly contortions of his feedback-distorted beats and vocals point to a very mature perspective. It makes me worry slightly about the upcoming generation. As I’m vibing out to his very tripped-out nature music, I’m definitely a little afraid.
Nika Roza Danilova is 21, and a college student at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. While studying for her double philosophy and French major, she’s Zola Jesus, an operatic soul whose voice goes from yodel to keen to full-throated soul. Like a Kate Bush for the goth set, in she inhabits a sonic world of tribal drumbeats, haunted whispers, and her own occasional shrieks.
These folks are a duo from San Diego that are not named. A male and a female, they rep Tundra Dub records, an indie record label from San Francisco that’s at the forefront of this nascent, evil genre. In addition to the de rigeur speaker-melting bass that lines their songs, the vocals alternate between a Darth Vader rasp and childlike girls. It’s right out of a horror movie!
You could argue that this entire genre owes its existence to Italian horror auteur Dario Argento, whose violent thriller Suspiria came with a unprecedentedly creepy soundtrack by Goblin — children’s lullabies, tribal lutes, and beastly growls. And the connection is made obvious by Mater Suspiria Vision, a European duo (or trio) whose audio-visual feasts prey on your nightmares. And also kind of make you nod your head.
Between lasers, the thudding of heartbeats, and all fuzz conjuring up a hazy, Italian-tinged unease, they’ve got witch house on lockdown. Case in point: they have a song called “Ritualz of the Crack Witches,” and its video features b-movie footage of many, many witches, baring fangs, breathing fire, flying, and other femmy occult activities.
They even perform in what look like Klansmen wizard capes, crouched on the ground over their equipment, they look like a coven.
This Halloween I’m dressing up as Mater Suspiria.
Feature image of Zola Jesus. Photo Credit: Newscom