You know, for not wanting to talk about Witch House, I sure want to talk about Witch House a lot. Posting that Hideous Men video a couple of days ago got me thinking more and more about this mysterious style no one seems to want to be a part of, yet everyone wants to be listening to/watching/grooving with… and I guess I realized I had no idea what it even is. What the hell is Witch House? Pictureplane, apparently, is credited as the first producer of this kind of music. Urban Dictionary, please enlighten me:
A genre of music created by surrealist goth ravers and post chillwavers that consists of a linear beat with mild reverb, popular sounding synth line (think 90s trance), and a whispering/auto-tuned tween hipster playing un-quantized samples from a Roland SP-404. (First ‘Witch House’ producer: Pictureplane; via MySpace)
Ok, so there it is. Now, on to Grimes’ new record, her first official full-length coming at you via the amazing Arbutus Records. And the track titles off Halfaxa are all full of these symbols — hearts, omegas, crosses…. TRIANGLES…. so this is Witch House. Right? I’m not so sure… let’s go back to our definition. Surrealist goth raver? This girl? We’ll leave that one blank. Linear beats?: OK, check. That’s there for sure. Grimes definitely has rhythm on lock-down for Halfaxa with groovy waltz-steps, plundering 80s pop and fist-pumping techno. The head-nod factor on this one is at least up to 11, even though some of the sounds mined don’t come off super original, are never over-processed or mind-scramblingly chopped up. Grimes wants the beat to reign supreme, and she plugs that quarter-note bass drum directly into your ear-hole with maximum bang and bounce. Mild reverb?: quintuple check. Popular sounding synth line (think 90s trance)?: ummm… half-check. I’m hearing much more 80s this time, but that could be some of the vocalisms. Grimes sounds more like she’s channeling Kate Bush, which is a little weird and a lot awesome. The idea seems to be more about “pop” in the qunitessential sense, something Grimes is very in tune with throughout Halfaxa. Whispering auto-tuned tween hipster playing un-quantized samples from a Roland SP-404? Maybe. Kind of a gray area.
Alright, the point is that none of this is so black and white. Once we define it, it’s over… and why would we want it to be over? I love the feelings I’m getting from some of these artists. I feel unsettled, a little uncomfortable with myself. But I’m also inspired by what’s being accomplished across a wide geographical and sonic terrain. Unique mixes of a variety of styles from a lot of different times and places, all swallowed up in the black hole of Boucher’s laptop, and spit back out with a force strong enough to reach for the stars. Witch House, I believe, is much more than a musical aesthetic. It’s also very visual, very communicative in a lot of different modes of transmission, and one of those is feel. That word “bewitching” keeps floating around in my head… the music, the people, they make you want to act out a role, dance around, be an idiot, drink something you’re not sure of what’s in it, chant along, float through the cosmos.
In terms of what we’ve gotten from Grimes before, Halfaxa marks a dynamic leap forward over a very short period of time. In my review of the wondrous cassette Geidi Primes from earlier this year, I noted that Boucher could use to stretch her song-writing legs a bit, allow her songs to relax into themselves and thus become fully realized. Here, Grimes succeeds where before she only hinted or winked at what was possible. Songs this time around begin one way, travel through space, time, style, mood, stack textures (once again, a lot of different sounds and instruments from strings to beats to electronics and back again) only to remove them like Jenga blocks… but the substructures are so firmly cemented, this tower’s just plain not coming down. Compositions are well rounded, and sometimes Grimes achieves this by simplifying things, at least musically. Tracks like “△△△△Rasik△△△△” embrace that universal notion of the drone with a sub-aquatic, throbbing bass and haunting, multi-tracked undead vocals that surround your meditating self. “Devon” has a different approach, beginning with a quasi-cha-cha feel and keyboard hook, and incubating to unfurl out into a blissful dance track that’s about as club-ready as Grimes might get. “Dream Fortress,” meanwhile incorporates strings and calms things down into a beautiful fairy tale of a track. So, there’s also a lot more variety here (an amazing feat given what we know about Grimes already), but the record never strays too far from maximizing and raising a banner of sound that says GRIMES in big bold letters. Grimes sounds like Grimes… and thank god for that.
Boucher’s voice, again, is that the forefront of this record’s ultimate success though. The thing is just such a chameleon; shapeshifting, pitch shifting… it’s a cornucopia of different moods all filtered into a singular vision. One voice, prismatically performed and manipulated to offer listeners a wide range of emotions with amazing efficiency and proficiency. Sometimes it’s downright frightening (check the horrific shrieks at the midpoint of “Dream Fortress,” even after—and before again—all that calming beauty)… But the coolest thing is how instrumental her voice is. Vocals are treated is a harmonic pillow, a mighty solo voice, or there matter-of-factly to get her words and ideas across.
So whatever this is, Witch House or otherwise, it sure is good. Really good. These kids, they can use all the symbols they want in their track titles, they can wear robes, bring cauldrons on stage with them… whatever they want to do. I’ll go see them, I’ll listen to their records… because I’ll say it again – this stuff isn’t about scaring people off, being somehow anti-everyone making music right now. This is about reincorporating pop music into a new, dark and beautiful kind of conversation in a new dark and beautiful kind of generation. One connected to others through new modes of technology, new techniques at creating sound and visual art. It’s still pop music. It’s still drone music. We all know it, we all love it. Grimes knows it. She loves it. I love Grimes. You should, too.