The sub-genre of popular songwriting known as "witch house" has sprung out of nowhere. Major music publications in the last couple of months have dedicated sizeable articles and debates to what on earth "witch house" might actually be. It's probably worth starting with a phrase from a British newspaper, claiming that the style - in essence - "regurgitates the work of everyone from Michael Jackson to Lindsay Lohan, via the Brat Pack films of the 80s."
That verb - "regurgitate" is important, since it gives some indication of the overall sound of witch house. "Slow" and "dirge-like" are a couple of terms that often appear in discussions, specifically because these artists like not only to "regurgitate" the works of major pop culture icons, but also to slow their songs down to the point where lyrics disappear in a disorienting sludge- or swamp-like soundscape.
Uniqueness and other proud states of isolation are slowly lost to a murky, anonymous multitude of influences.
Although the style reemploys the name of a major dance genre, it seems extremely unlikely that anybody would move - happily - to this music. Or, if movement did take place, it would either be mental (due to the onset of dizziness) or intestinal (due to an impending regurgitation). This, in short, is the noise of destabilization and disorientation - the sounds of a magic spell in action.
It's not supposed to make you feel good.
The resulting, extremely odd melange of entertainment and illness has been nicely sumarized by one writer as follows: witch house is a "heady brew of nostalgia (from hearing Jacko) and anxiety (the dreaded post-club return to reality)." That reality has, as suggested, included some decelerated remixes of songs by mainstream pop divas in order to "dig beneath pop's shiny facade and unleash the damaged beauty within."
Damage appears to have the upper hand over beauty.
Such is the Western context. In Moscow, a very interesting roundtable was recently organized by the magazine Afisha, in order to discover how modern Russian musicians - unaware of such trends - might relate to the sounds of witch house, wonky, and over peripheral movements of 2010.
Observations were made that witch house is vaguely reminiscent of goth parties from the mid-'90s. It recalled sounds from the past, rather than anything new. To boot, the main parallels drawn were with outside, foreign fashions, as opposed to anything domestic.
Perhaps due to some associations with the market pressures of that decade, one of the roundtable's participants - Pahom - reacted with pronounced cynicism. Put differently, if there was a local connection, he insisted that it was commercial, rather than cultural. "These bands are placing their bets on the 'dark side' - on stuff to do with demonism. That always sells best of all. We could be talking about Russia as a whole, or issues of 'life and death'; it doesn't really matter, because when any subject leans towards death and darkness, then - of course - it'll seem more impressive, too. This is all being done, probably, in order to make more money."
Money to burn.
Such views are rare, however; most of the online comments about Russian and Ukrainian witch house have come from other corners. If we step out into the undergrowth of Slavic blogs, forums, and long-tail activity, these tracks are seen as locally relevant.
First of all, we're treated to some general observations: "This is atmospheric music that's full of dark, drawn-out electronic sounds. It has a deep, slow beat and monolithic, gloomy vocals - all of which leave an impression of being doomed... There's a feeling of something religious here, but it's hard to say whether it comes from an aura of something satanic or Christian. Either way, it'll fill your head with crazy zombie-priests from lots of horror films."
Since the style is still very young (and may be obsolete by the weekend), it's not suprising that some of its exponents reference "witch house" directly in their stage names. This, however, can lose something in translation. The Russian language has no direct equivalent to the English sound "w"; Slavic speakers often use "v" instead, giving us something like "vitch," rather than "witch." Then comes a second problem. The visual appearance of the Russian equivalent for "v" is actually "в," which can create a confusion between the words "witch" and - unfortunately - "bitch."
That brings us to the young outfit, Bitch House, whose tracks and photographs are included in this post.
They refuse to name their hometown, prefering instead to document their address as "Bermuda," a fitting location, perhaps, since the region is home to many "doomed" vessels.* The image above suggests that we are not supposed to find any positive meaning in that same triangular metaphor. There are no images of the band members, either; instead we are treated to a combination of domestic and demonic photographs (shown here), blurring the line between homesteads and horror.
Bitch House's debut album can now be downloaded from various locations and is a fascinating variation on a new Western trend, alternatively both witty and worrying. The related pictures, as we see, are just as troubling; their grainy tones indicate they were taken on cheap cameras in utterly typical, probably provincial locations. These images of suffering and dark destiny could be absolutely anywhere.
As soon as we leave the city lights, other forces come slowly into play.
What's the specific connection with Slavic actuality, though? We might refer to a brand new, 44-minute "Russian Zombie Rave" mix - now available at Soundcloud - that slows down some nationally-known, cheap and cheerful pop hits from Russia, Ukraine, and continental Europe across the last fifteen years or so. Moscow's musicians might associate the nastiness of witch house with big-city goth parties, but the folks behind our zombie rave suggest the same moronic, disorienting forces can be found at any village disco.
These are the demons that lie in wait - no matter where you happen to be.
As one blogger has it: "Witch house neither has a special mood nor a specific place where people listen to it. It would make a wonderful soundtrack to a journey on Russian public transport - or if you ever felt like falling into a depression at home." Both locations, apparently, have a great deal in common, in which case Russian witch house is neither commercial trickery, nor Western in its application. It is a soundtrack to the sense of being "doomed" that most people feel in most towns and villages.
* After publishing this piece, we contacted Bitch House, who informed us that they're based in Donetsk.