As much of the musical world spent Sunday trudging back from the annual 1,300-band extravaganza that is South by Southwest, Salem was far away, at D.C.’s Rock & Roll Hotel. It’s hard to blame the Michigan group — leading purveyors of witch house, a slow-moving mashup of goth, industrial and hip-hop that would definitely win a vote for “indie microgenre most difficult to explain to your parents” — for not making the trip. Last year, the band rode a wave of blog buzz into Austin only to be booed off the stage at its highest-profile gig.
So is the band in a better place a year later? On the plus side, the group didn’t get booed offstage Sunday night. On the negative side, Salem likely would have been if more than just 40 devoted fans showed up. The fact that so few people came to see what the post-hype was all about suggests that next year at this time the band may not exist. And based on Sunday’s performance, the world would be no worse off.
Salem is pure aesthetic, with little to no detail paid to songcraft, stage presence or anything else that defines a band. For the entirety of a mercifully short 40-minute set, the members stood shrouded in a thick cloud of smoke as they hunched over various samplers and keyboards while creating a violently loud wall of sound. Between the smoke, occasional flashing lights and funhouse noises that populate the band’s songs, it felt like an amusement park ride where your worst nightmare is getting stuck inside forever.
For half the songs, Jack Donoghue emerged from the haze — literal, if not metaphorical — to rap. On the band’s debut album, “King Night,” his voice is filtered through a variety of effects to land on the slurred, blurred sound that fits the sinister musical accompaniment. In concert, it was simply like a bad YouTube meme come to life.
For other songs, Heather Marlatt took center stage, offering a dead-eyed stare and lifeless moan that was torturous in its own right but still a welcome respite from Donoghue’s barking.
Looking for hooks or memorable lyrics in Salem’s songs is a dead end. But, after all, this is dead-end music. There was one moment when a familiar melody creeped through — title track “King Night,” which is built off a sample of “O Holy Night.” And creeped would be accurate — like all of the songs, it lurched and squealed its way to a final resting point.
It was a bit scary, sure. But mostly, it was just stupid.