While the term “witch house” is still tossed around casually as a musical style, enough recurring motifs have been created by artists operating beneath that vague umbrella to qualify it as a subgenre unto itself: occult and horror-oriented themes; minimalist song structures and dark, enveloping soundscapes (often including glitched-up samples and ambient noise) woven densely around hip-hop, industrial and synthpop rhythms; and band names which often contain Unicode or other non-standard characters that make them difficult to track down with a simple name-only search, further solidifying their underground status.
Several talented musicians have found a successful niche within those rather loose boundaries, and we've featured some of the best artists in the field, including ∆AIMON and Mater Suspiria Vision, but I must confess I've been waiting most anxiously for the arrival of the first full-length record from the L.A. outfit Crosses (†††) – an eerie, sensual and highly experimental side project formed by Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, long-time collaborator Shaun Lopez and Chuck Doom. While considered witch house more in spirit than style, the project walks the extreme borderlands of dance music, exploring ominous, seductive and dangerous dream-worlds through a stream-of-consciousness writing/performing technique and Moreno's hypnotic, almost ritualistic lyrical approach.
††† (the record) is the perfect entry point for anyone curious about the band, as it represents slightly reworked and remastered versions of most tracks from their previous two EPs, as well as five songs recorded for a third disc that never materialized. It also captures the band's eerie, dreamlike and darkly romantic aesthetic, conjuring a similar emotional vibe to How to Destroy Angels, side project of Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor (a listen to the instrumental “†” will take you to the same headspace). The music itself, however, is a unique animal, falling more closely in tone to Moreno's own sidelines, Palms and Team Sleep, but with a rougher, more chaotic edge. Like those bands, ††† takes the experimentation, distortion and sweeping production that characterizes Deftones' best guitar-based work and applies it to vintage synths, sample loops and unsettling, occasionally ear-challenging noise.
These are all front-and-center in the thumping opening cut “†his is a †rick,” which was also the first track on the band's debut EP, laying out all their most recognizable themes from the get-go. Moreno's vocals have a mellower feel, but can be just as aggressive as his harsher Deftones material (often reminiscent of his work on their classic album White Pony), and it's nicely offset by surprisingly bright and animated synth patterns, with emotional peaks bursting through in the dramatic choruses of “Fron†iers” and “Op†ion,” the most distinctly 'tones-like tracks here. Another memorable entry, the premier single “Bi†ches Brew,” is a much darker, more gothic piece with an incredibly heavy chorus. It features a haunting video that plays up the ethereal, ceremonial aspects of the music, while reflecting the lo-fi analog video effects that the band incorporates into their promo art and live shows.
Lush, dreamy interludes like “Nine†een Eigh†y Seven,” “†hholyghs†” and “†rophy” sport loose, almost free-form rhythm patterns, bluesy acoustic guitar and piano riffs give a rich feel to “Nine†een Nine†y Four” and the cinematic piano-based closing cut “Dea†h Bell” is so serene it's almost literally a ghost of a song (though it would make a fantastic closing-title theme for a dark thriller), but the tempo and energy level pick up considerably for highly danceable pop cuts like “†elepa†hy,” the exhilarating “Blk S†allion” and the recently-released single “†he Epilogue,” demonstrating that a slick radio hook or two can be found among the hazy experimentation.
Giving this album a couple of end-to-end listens (yes, it's that good), I found that the greatest strength of ††† lies not with its dreamlike mood – which was enough of a selling point for me – but the waves of building intensity delivered by Moreno's vocals, which for me always provided the emotional heart of the best Deftones songs. While they've outwardly embraced a genre known for its ability to carry the listener off into an indistinct, shadowy dreamland, Chino and company have found a passionate pulse within the electronic whirs and throbs, which adds a smoldering erotic undercurrent that suits the mood perfectly. As a result, ††† plays like a sensual ceremony that is both dangerous and irresistibly inviting, setting it apart from many of its genre peers and making it one of the year's most rewarding releases.