In the late 2000s, something that called itself witch house started to appear amongst the electronic music that so rapidly accumulated online. Despite the name, it didn’t sound like house, though it did have gothic undertones that meant the ‘witch’ part of the tag made sense. Other names were applied to this slow, skewed and sometimes spooky music: drag, screwgaze, and for a brief and unfortunate time rape gaze. Acts like oOoOO, Salem and Balam Acab caused ears to prick up with their eerie sounds, influenced by the chopped and screwed hip-hop of DJ Screw.
If any one label became associated with witch house, it was Tri-Angle (the name is generally stylised with an inverted triangle between the two halves of the word: inversion is important to both the sound and aesthetic of many of these bands). The label’s catalogue now includes less explicitly dark material by the likes of How To Dress Well and AlunaGeorge, but their earliest release was Let Me Shine For You, a mixtape of Lindsay Lohan songs reinterpreted by producers like oOoOO and Oneohtrix Point Never. ‘We all love pop music and this is merely an experiment’, says the blurb. ‘All of our intentions are very sincere.’ But are they really? How sincere can you truly remain when you are adding sinister overtones to the work of a troubled sometime pop star?
Besides his reworking of Lohan’s I Live For The Day, oOoOO (apparently pronounced ‘Oh’) has already put out a couple of EPs on Tri-Angle, but for his first full-length album Chris Dexter, the man behind the unfathomable name, has set up his own label, Nihjgt Feelings, on the Turkish island of Bozcaada. As with the whole of the Lohan mixtape, the extent of Dexter’s sincerity is hard to gauge in any of his music. For all the unease, you get the impression that it was good fun to make – maybe more fun than a lot of laptop-produced stuff.
Without Your Love covers a broad palette. The title track, for example, uses a vocal that’s barely been messed with at all, and the result is something quite sweet-sounding. Stay Here is dominated by prominent bass drums that echo cavernously – the vocals are plaintive and the track feels almost uncomfortably claustrophobic, but the skeleton of a pop song is apparent underneath. Crossed Wires, on the other hand, is as abstract and downright terrifying as anything that was ever described as witch house: creaks and hisses are played out over a distant, skewed vocal that could be interpreted as either frightened or threatening.
Although the gentler songs call to mind the kind of ’90s RnB that’s currently in vogue, the more hard-edged tracks show a clearer hip-hop influence. The big dubstep-style bass parts of Mouchette hold up a beat that swaggers in contrast to the lurch that’s in evidence for much of the album. And The South is as dirty-sounding as its name suggests it ought to be. But while hip-hop and RnB are audible beneath the effects, Dexter has put his own slant on things here to the extent that Without Your Love can’t really be described in terms of these genres.
Should it be described as witch house then? Should anything be described as witch house anymore? Maybe it’s one of those tags that briefly served a purpose as we got to grips with some of the stranger new sounds that we were hearing in music. Credit is due to oOoOO for his continuing use of such sounds, which surprise and unnerve in equal measure. In Without Your Love he shows that he’s evolved from sinister experimentalist to a creator of powerful and highly original songs.