Live review: Salem at the Echoplex

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An unexpected guest hung out in the Echoplex lobby just past midnight Tuesday before Salem’s headlining set at the goth-appropriate 12:30 a.m. slot –- Tyler, the Creator of Odd Future. For fans of modern rap built on dessicated synths and a fascination for grim sexual violence, this was something of a Justice League-level meeting of the minds.

But the encounter also underscored the difficulty Salem’s had in capitalizing on the intrigue and originality of its sound, one dubiously credited with spawning the “witch house” scene and a thousand hokey imitators (“GL∆SS †33†H,” anyone?). Inventing a wholly new style, as the Michigan trio arguably did on its early albums such as the delightfully titled “Yes, I Smoke Crack,” is a laudable goal, and Salem has a riveting backstory of drugs, prostitution and white-trash Midwest mythology that adds an emotional resonance to this cryptic music.


But that’s the thing with music’s cutting edge. Someone’s always waiting in the wings to overthrow or undermine your vision. Where Salem runs into some trouble –- especially on stage -- is with the question of “what now?”

The early rub on Salem was that they couldn’t play live. Not in the sense that they’re unskilled or uncompelling performers, but that a huge portion of their set is prerecorded backing tracks. A widely-circulated viral video caught them getting booed offstage at 2010’s South By Southwest for this reason.

Fortunately, they’ve fixed that problem –- or at least made it less problematic -– with enough fog machines to qualify as atmospheric disturbances and a fluorescent strobe setup that creates the vibe of a dentist’s office in hell. If there were a fashion genre of “meth-chic” –- emaciated yet sexually threatening -– Salem would be its Kate Moss (they’ve modeled for a New York Times fashion spread and been profiled in the avant-garde gay culture magazine Butt).

Salem is also rare among their grisly peers in that they truly sound good. Their full-length “King Night,” released on the local indie label IAMSOUND, clarified their smeary synths and drum machine clatter inspired by Southern rap producers such as Shawty Redd and Drumma Boy. But live venues rough it up again to a very moving effect; when co-vocalist Heather Marlatt coos reverbed nothings atop gauzier tracks such as “Frost,” the emotional abyss of this music comes into sharp relief. “King Night’s” title track overwhelmed with the sheer will of its choir-of-the-damned vocal samples and synthesizers that sound like they have a blood disease.

But then there are the songs on which Salem turns from rap-signifying beatmakers and into an actual rap group. On record, singer John Holland pitch-shifts his vocals down to a bass register more akin to UGK’s Bun B, and it feels convincingly obscure and affected. Live, however, he sounds every bit the stoned Midwest kid failing to keep up with a Southern bounce record, and it kills the mood on cuts such as “Trapdoor.” Which is a shame, because his lyrics are halfway between Darby Crash and Dennis Cooper -– at once completely nihilistic about sex yet implacably brokenhearted.

Salem’s commitment to its own aesthetic may be what undermines the group in the end –- bands built on the idea that the world is too horrible to endure without cheap narcotics and anonymous sex aren’t exactly prone to long careers. Tuesday’s set showed some steps towards stability, but the sight of Tyler, the Creator nodding along to their doomed machinery only accentuated what Salem’s still looking for. It’s not enough to have a myth, mystery and blinding originality. You also need a plan for the future.

-- August Brown