Bram E. Gieben (aka Texture) is the editor of the Edinburgh-based fiction/non-fiction website Weaponizer, and also co-founder of the net label Black Lantern Music. I asked him to write DM a primer on the genre “witch house”:
The Niallist (aka Niall O’Conghaile) asked me to write something about witch house, summing it up, providing a genre overview, and talking about some of the artists I’ve discovered over the last year or so. The problem is witch house is nothing like a traditional genre. It is not defined by a tempo, a style of production, a specific group of artists, a region or country or city, or any of the things one could use to pigeonhole, say, shoegaze, dubstep or hip-hop. Even the pool of influences from which it draws are so diverse as to stagger the mind of even the most ardent avant garde completist: witch house can (and does) sound like everything from experimental noise and drone to EBM and darkwave and aggrotech, from hip-hop to punk rock and black metal, often all at the same time.
Witch house is perhaps the first anti-genre, in that it has always actively resisted not just definition, but also detection. Much mockery has been made of artists spelling their band names with strange typographic symbols, but in the early days of witch house this had a specific intent: namely to create a ‘lexical darknet’ (to quote Warren Ellis, the comics writer and novelist whose blog posts led me to my first discoveries in the field), whereby fans had to use the specific symbols in the band names to locate their music online.
Witch house has incubated and mutated on free music sharing platforms such as Soundcloud and Bandcamp, and survives and breeds on private forums like www.witch-house.com, and on invite-only Facebook groups like Witchbook and Dior Nights, which use Facebook to run miniature secret societies and covens. These technologies (or services, however you want to define them) are core to the distribution of the music, but equally important have been the Tumblr and Vimeo platforms. The cut-and-paste ethos behind many witch house projects extends to their visuals, and the gifs, music videos and photo collages that populate artists’ feeds and channels are as much a part of the aesthetic of witch house as the music is.
The equal importance of visual and audio material helps us get closer to a definition of witch house: it is a mood or a feeling, the kind of atmosphere generated by the seminal Goblin’s soundtrack for ‘Suspiria,’ the creeping, schizophrenic suspense of the Laura Palmer mystery, or the Red Room at the heart of Twin Peaks, the final twenty minutes of The Wicker Man, or a basement rave in the house at the end of The Blair Witch Project. In repose, it generates an aura of ritual, darkness and suspense. In motion, it combines the glamour of fetish clubs and serial murder and hard drugs into an amoral dystopia of sound and vision.
Excited yet? You should be. Witch house is almost completely free from the constraints of mainstream hype - aside perhaps from the majestic witch pop of S4LEM, the mysterious feedback glyphs of WU LYF, and the luxurious electronic experimentation of Balam Acab, the three artists closest to crossing over into mainstream consciousness.
For the most part, its artists are incredibly underground - legends only in the hearts and minds of those that follow them. Admittedly, the hipster recognition factor has spawned many a merry band of symbol-inflected wannabes. But for the most part, witch house is still made up of artists committed to a DIY ethos and a neo-goth aesthetic, interested only in the making and destroying of sounds and visuals. Witch house only exists as a construct, a figment, or even better, a ghost: the minute you look at it head on, it disappears.
Even the term ‘witch house’ is a ghostly: you won’t find the music I’m discussing neatly marked and tagged as witch house, neither in a record shop, on Soundcloud, or anywhere else. The music is just as likely to style itself as ghostwave, witchstep, chillwave, screwgaze, ritual, okkvlt, cryptobass, tranq, drag, gothstep, or a thousand other names, some probably being concocted as we speak from the arcane brew of influences that boil and bubble in the cauldron of this fascinating, fragmented, newborn movement.
Some heroes of the genre:
Nattymari, who in a recent essay redefined the witch house genre as ‘RPG funk’ (a massively multiplayer online role-playing game whose medium is the remix and the original composition) is one of the genre’s most interesting characters. His ‘obliterations’ of popular and obscure songs recontextualise pop and hip-hop in bizarre and sonically challenging ways, and his drag mixtapes trace the thick seam of hip-hop and bass music present in witch house (by way of his beloved DJ Screw).
†‡† (Ritualz), who make incredibly infectious hypercolour death metal trance, hail from from Mexico City. †‡† are the epitome of witch house in many ways, melding goth sensibilities and aesthetics with rave and hip-hop sounds. More importantly, their tunes are insanely catchy and dancefloor-friendly, and produced with a slick sheen that is the polar opposite of many WH artists’ lo-fi ethos.
Disaro Records, an often controversial label which nonetheless has achieved much in popularising the movement through tours, solid-state releases and online notoriety. Notable bands associated with Disaro are the utterly fantastic and terrifying WHITE RING, exuberant post-dubstep kid GuMMy†Be▲R, and electro abusers PARTY TRASH.
Textbeak, an American producer and DJ whose regular podcasts are a must for the listener new to the genre, and whose recent album ‘Lovecraft’ upped the tempo, and explored crunchy, distorted IDM territory.
Tundra Dubs, a San Francisco based label whose avant-garde pop take on witch house and dark electronica is another brilliant advert for the sheer diversity of the genre, supporting some incredible artists like the sublimely epic A▲IMON, the archly hip Skeletonkids, and the baroque Funerals.
DATERAPE, whose polished, melancholy electro / breaks take on witch house is beautifully understated and incredibly well thought through.
FOSTERCARE, whose multi-tracked, pitch-distorted sing-song raps and searing, scattershot breakbeats synthesize crunk, drag and screw with feedback, drones and techno bass.
Vagina Vangi, a Russian combo whose sweeping, neo-gothic stadium pop sounds like Siouxsie Sioux fronting the evil twins of Daft Punk and Sparks.
GVCCI HVCCI, a mysterious pop / hip-hop princess who raps about fucking goth boys with studded black dildoes, coming on like M.I.A. in the middle of a fight to the death with Lady GaGa.
... and of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout to the collective I myself have become involved with, the incredibly talented group of musicians over at the netlabel AURAL SECTS, a new collective dedicated to expanding the genre and testing its limits, from the neo-industrial rhythms of zxz, to the spaced out narcotic bliss of I AM WATER and MOON MIRROR, to the fuzzed-out sound abuse of Tash Willmore and †▲βU∩∩Y▲†.
Now, I could spend the rest of the day naming bands and getting you to follow them (80s Stallone, oOoOO, EV1LR1VER, High Park, I††, howiquitcrack, Kitty Lectro, NANCY, powwoww, BL/\CK CEILING, Story of Isaac, UNISON, WIK▲N... see?), or you could just hook yourself up with a Tumblr, a Soundcloud page, and a file full of ascii code symbols… and explore for yourself.
Yes, your friends will tell you to turn it off, that it isn’t music. Yes, they will judge you to be an irredeemably pretentious hipster. No, your goth friends won’t respect you either - they STILL only listen to Ministry and the Sisters of Mercy. No, nobody else you know in the much-vaunted ‘real world’ will know what the fuck you’re on about.
But what you will bear witness to is a revolution in progress. The best new DIY, bedroom-produced underground music being made today, presented in such a way that it is nigh-on impossible for the mainstream to co-opt. A powerful, addictive, stolen kind of music: the kind that makes you feel at peace and alienated at the same time. The kind of music that runs from definitions and pigeonholes, and laughs in the face of convention.
People, this is the nadir of the ‘MySpace revolution’ which started all those years ago. This is the rise of a generation of producers who already believe they are ‘post music industry’. This is where it all happens, and this is what you’ve been waiting for. Think your mind’s dangerous enough? Then put down your Steely Dan and your Rolling Stones, surrender your beloved Ghostface and Soul Train, and step inside the witch house. We’re waiting for you.
Bram E. Gieben makes music as Texture. His album ‘Sigil Kids’ is out now on Aural Sects, and his ‘Neuroleptica Trilogy’ of EPs is available from Black Lantern Music. You can hear Texture’s “Ghost Nebula” witch haus/drag mix here.