Graded on a Curve:
Salem,
Fires in Heaven

Witch house (bet that’s new on ya) pioneers Salem have an interesting backstory. Back in 2010 the bummed-by-life band (then a trio, now a duo) released their debut studio album King Night, and captivated chillwave fans everywhere. They then vanished like Amelia Earhart, leading to much speculation about where they’d gone and if they’d ever come back. But here they are,10 years later, excellent new release, Fires in Heaven, in hand.

Salem’s brand of electronica sludge is as gloomy as a week-long stay with your dying grandmother, and sunk in the mix are a pair of of white guys (Jack Donoghue and John Holland to be exact) who sound like black guys, which has led some to scream cultural appropriation as if white guys haven’t been swiping their vocal cues from black guys since well before Elvis Presley made history doing it.

Upon first listen I wrote off Fires in Heaven as a murky, druggy bore, theme music for your next heroin overdose. Chillwave my ass–there’s a world of difference between chill and suicidal ideation. But a few listens changed my mind; Fires in Heaven may be a colossal downer, its songs echoes of the abyss, but it’s a fascinating and often beautiful bummer. The melodies creep up on you, stately and majestic, the speaker-destroying bass is deep as the Mariana trench, and the electronica toppings add layer upon layer of entrancing textures. By listen three I was hooked.

Several of the songs on Fires in Heaven can only be described as sublime. Show stopper and opening track “Capulets” borrows liberally from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Montagues And Capulets,” and this musical backdrop gives Salem ample opportunity to philosophize about their favorite subjects, hardcore drugs and terminal slackerdom (“Ask me what I’m doing with my life, ain’t shit to tell ya’ll”). The title track is slow, its buried chanting witchy. Is this heaven? I don’t think so.

“Crisis” is a slowed to a narcotic blur, it’s lyrics downcast but vaguely hopeful (“I can’t feel my heart but it’s beating for something”).There’s Walmart parking lot in there too, but what’s transpiring there is a mystery to me. “Sears Tower” isn’t about the Sears Tower but it’s pure ecstacy, while both “Starfall”and “Wings” have echoes of both Bowie/Eno and Kanye West.

On “Red River” the vocals aren’t buried in the mix and its subject is pure Baptist baptism by water–”Red River washes over me” they repeat, and there’s some snake handling going on as well. Could the boys be getting some of that old time religion?

On LP stunner “Old Gods” the answer would seem to be yes, “Heaven is a place out here with me,” they sing, “so burn those wings and let us all be free.” From a band whose first EP was entitled “Yes I Smoke Crack,” “Old Gods” is miracle along the lines of walking on water. As for “Not Much of a Life” Salem place treated vocals atop an infectious melody and repeat the title over and over again. There doesn’t appear to be much hope in the title but they hint at some vague deliverance with the line “Oh the reason I hang on.”

Provided they not make us wait ten years for their next LP, Salem looks to be the go-to band for electronic fans who like their music as thick as riverbank mud. Me, I like both the music and the complexity of their message. You’ve got heaven and you’ve got hell, but in their world you’ve got fire in both. That leaves them in a real dilemma, and their souls hang in the balance.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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