Over the last decade, Jack Donoghue, John Holland and former member Heather Marlatt’s influence as SALEM loomed heavily over popular culture’s darker corners. With witch house – a sound that was pioneered in part by their 2010 debut album ‘King Night’ – they impacted the likes of Charli XCX’s earlier work, as well as making their way onto the multiple film soundtracks, with Donoghue also contributing to Kanye West’s seminal Yeezus album. Despite this recognition, witch house, and indeed SALEM at times, have sometimes been perceived as a punchline in a joke about early 2010’s cool that doesn’t seem to tell their full story.
SALEM have always, for better or worse, been an entity who are forthright with their demons; stories of drug addiction, prostitution, and other personal issues have permeated their narrative in the multiple think-pieces about the band’s legacy much more than the overarching messaging behind their work. This is a huge shame, because at their core, SALEM are one of the most important groups of the last ten years; hindered by their own legend and their mystery, implying a refusal to set the record straight. On their new album ‘Fires In Heaven’ however, SALEM bring a stunning progression on the sound they helped to build a decade ago.
Now comprised of just Donoghue and Holland, SALEM’s music feels more purposeful, capturing the same chaos as King Night, but with a renewed focus. Opener ‘Capulets’ is an audacious outlier, with Donoghue sounding like Gucci Mane in 2010 over the top of Prokofiev’s ‘Dance Of The Knights’ movement from his Romeo and Juliet ballet. Transitioning into ‘Fires In Heaven’ however, it’s clear to see how much work has gone into ensuring they don’t rest on their laurels. All of the group’s original elements are there; the buzzsaw synths, the clattering percussion, buried 808s and distorted samples, only this time more widescreen – perhaps down to the added guidance of Henry Laufer (aka Shlohmo) and legendary producer Mike Dean (who is responsible for the sonic vision of the likes of Kanye West and Travis Scott).
SALEM in 2020 clearly isn’t about witch house revisionism; ‘Sears Tower’ is a soaring cut of electronic metal that has more in common with Deftones than Pictureplane, while ‘Starfall’ is a genuinely beautiful and unexpectedly soulful track that’ll go down as one of 2020’s most tearjerking electronic moments. Most surprisingly, Fires In Heaven leans on the vocal talents of the group more than their previous efforts – each track is delivered in a multitude of different ways, from the fragile yearning of ‘Wings’ to the vengeful and all-out sinister rap drawl of ‘Red River’ and beyond.
While many years were spent wondering if the group would ever return, ‘Fires In Heaven’ has arrived just in time to catch the rest of the world burning. Accept no imitators; SALEM are back and are still capable of giving us the ultimate soundtrack to the end of the world as we know it.
Words: Phil Grant
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