SALEM live – A Review
St Leonards Church broods in a shabby corner of Shoreditch. Ancient, with the original building dating back to Twelfth century Saxon times, and famous for owning a line in the nursery rhyme Oranges & Lemons When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch…
These days the shadow of the spire stretches an arched finger over the vagrants, drunks and junkies that huddle round the high church doors. Tonight there are none of these to be seen, partially because of the skin tightening winter bite, mostly because theyve been moved along by security. In their place are shivering queues of hipsters snaking into the gloom of St Leonards, excited for the chance to finally catch the years most hyped underground act, SALEM.
The venue is a master stroke. The audience are seated in the wooden pews of the nave, or high above, leaning against the cold stone of the mezzanine that runs the length of the church. When the pews are quickly filled, late comers sit cross legged at the front. Most people here havent been inside a House of God for donkeys years, and the Were-doing-something-naughty nervy giggles of the crowd gives the event the sensation of a bizarre school outing.
Eventually the DJ stops, and the area round the pulpit fills with smoke. Theres no stage, the band have set up on the floor, in front of a vast stained glass crucifixion. After a strenuous pause the 3 members of SALEM mooch out, leader John Holland with pinched face and oversized sports bomber, Jack Donoghue looking like a taller beefier K. Cobain and Heather Marlett looking like she doesnt want to be there at all. Holland steps to the centre of stage and starts squeezing deep squarls of feedback from his guitar. The other two stand behind synths, push various buttons and the dirging crunk ambient that the band are making their name from rolls up to the saintly rafters.
The music of SALEM has been variously, and to the bands bemusement, described as witch house and drag house. Tonight its the screwed hip hop beat that pulses through the tracks that is immediately apparent. Deep bass kicks and rattling snares punctuate walls of drifting, celestial chords and static. When Donoghue steps up to the mic for Sick, he proves himself an adept MC with a deep narcotic flow. On record his contributions are slowed to a monstrous pitch. Here, live he turns the tracks he raps on into an amazing hybrid of hip hop and shoegaze that could only have been birthed in Americas mongrel nation. Heather Marletts vocal contributions are more muted. At first she barely mouths along to the distorted backing track, preferring to stare at the wooden cross behind her than out at the audience. And while her pale listless demeanour may be a good a visual metaphor for SALEMs disconnected melancholy, her lip synching feels like a somewhat of a missed opportunity.
A soaring rendition of King Night gives the gig its high point. As thousands of garbled synthesised choirs layer ever more epic over one another, the hymnal melodies and rattling beats fill St Leonards and creating a genuinely strange and moving experience. Unfortunately sound restrictions prevent the band reaching the ear shredding volume levels that these dense walls of sound crave, but the acoustics of the building add a layer of reverb and timbre that would be impossible to replicate in, say, the tawdry confines of a Carling Academy.
Whether SALEM convinced everyone tonight is moot. The band finish to a curiously muted response from the crowd, although this in itself seems fairly appropriate. They make a sludge of awkward, baroque and emotional music, songs sung from the side of bruised mouths, instruments played with narcoleptic fingers. They are undoubtedly making something new, forcing fresh shapes from old conventions, and whilst the band are too contorted to ever win mainstream approbation, at moments on this night in a crumbling church they come close to being as good as it gets.