"Imagine that you're a 16-year-old raped by her father in front of all of your friends and put it on Instagram." That's how a guy at a Moscow party described Russian witch house to a local reporter. (Russians have a real cheery sense of humor.) If that makes you uncomfortable, that's the point. Dark jokes are central to witch house in Russia, as is a sense of nihilism. But let's be clear, we're talking about the kind of doom-and-gloom you find printed on a slashed-up T-shirt rather than a book by Nietzsche.
Before we jump into Russia's peculiar strain of witch house, some context from this side of the world: the term "witch house" was coined in in 2009 by New York DJ Travis Egedy (AKA Pictureplane), who used it to playfully describe the music he and a small circle of friends were making. "Me and my friend Shams came up with it to describe occult-based house music dealing with themes of darkness. You know, magical house music," Egedy tells me. When he dropped it in an interview with Pitchfork about Dark Rift—Egedy's album about the astrological significance of the year 2012—the phrase went viral, spreading from music blogs to Last.fm to (eventually) the New York Times.
It's easy to see why the phrase "witch house" was so sticky. It perfectly captures a ghostly, gothic strain of electronic music that was reaching peak popularity in the mid to late-2000s: slowed-down tracks that creeped along to trappy snares, heavy reverb, and vocals pitched down to demonic growls. "In a way, people were just needing to call it something," Egedy says.
Witch house went from tossed-off inside joke into a bona-fide genre, closely associated with both Internet culture and the early releases of Tri Angle Records—specifically, artists like Salem, Balam Acab, and oOoOO. It also became associated with a certain look: goth kids draped in enough pentagrams and crosses to fill an episode of American Horror Story. To me, this theatrical caricature of bleakness was redeemed by the fact that the best witch house tracks also had a sense of humor. Two of my favorites, Shamantis' 35-minute remix of Justin Bieber's "U Smile" and Salem's remix of Britney Spears' "Till The World Ends," turn mundane pop songs into bizarre journeys through uncanny valley.
As cultural cycles go, the media eventually stopped paying attention to witch house, especially when another underground genre that started as a joke and got semi-serious came to the fore (yes, I'm talking about seapunk and vaporwave). But witch house stayed alive in its original home—the Internet. "I think in most countries outside of America, and even in America, a lot of people took [witch house] seriously," Egedy says. "There are a lot of true, deep fans out there. They don't care that it started out as a joke, because the music is so good. A lot of sick music has been made that you could call witch house."
Witch house also found its ideal foster home in Russia, where the genre's gloomy humor matches the population's sensibilities. "Why is it so popular? Maybe because it's so dark and edgy, which goes so well with our reality," says Evgenia Nedosekina, an electronic musician in Moscow who goes by Jekka. "Of course, if you want to wear black and take part in a rave in some converted factory, witch house in the way to go."
The biggest witch house party in Russia today is called VV17CHOU7, which is just "witch house" spelled in a fucked up way with superfluous numbers. The party started in November 2013, when "a couple of guys who loved Salem and White Ring decided to spread this dark in Russia," says Valery Nikolskaya from the Moscow-based gabber group Kaigerda. "They created the VV17CHO7 party, with an all-black dresscode, where representatives of this from different parts of Russia played their DJ sets and attracted more and more people."
Russian witch house producers are taking the genre to new places. This track, by Summer of Haze, wouldn't be out of place in the PC Music catalog.
Russia remoteness makes it difficult at times to book foreign acts, and witch house filled the vacuum. "Crystal Castles tried to perform in Russia twice. People bought tickets, but something always went wrong and performances got cancelled," Nikolskaya continues. "But Russians still wanted to feel this dramatic, crazy Skins style. So VV17CHOU7 stopped being just a place where you can listen to witch house—it became a huge rave with hundreds of people. It became the biggest new party in Russia in 2014 to 2015, so witch house became popular too."
According to local coverage of VV17CHOU7 parties, the Russian witch house scene right now is overrun with teenagers doing bucketfuls of drugs to bands like HEALTH and Crystal Castles. But where the genre gets really weird is due to a language quirk. In Russian, HIV is spelled "VIH," which is pronounced as "vich." That sounds a lot like "witch." Capitalizing on this pun, some people created a page called "HIV-infected Witch House" on the country's most popular social network, Vk.com, to ridicule the culture.
Again, what began as a joke quickly took on a real significance, as the connection to the deadly virus became one of the genre's defining features. (The entire comments section of this blog post about Russian witch house is full of outraged readers calling out how stupid it is for kids to celebrate HIV culture.)
Yet, videos like this one (which is called "v17chou7 pvrty" and was filmed in an insane asylum) exist:
Youth culture's dark obsession with illness isn't so strange, however, when you realize that Russia is currently going through an HIV/AIDs epidemic, with the Kremlin's conservative agenda doing little to curtail the disease's spread. In fact, the number of infected Russians has nearly doubled from 500,000 to 930,000 in the last five years, according to the country's state AIDS center. When I asked Seva Granik, a Russian party promoter in New York, why uninfected, middle-class witch house kids are so prone to making HIV jokes, he brushed it off: "Typical teenager stuff. There's a cult of hopelessness and nihilism there, understandably, so this makes perfect sense." With 90,000 Russians contracting HIV in 2014, maybe it's not so crazy that the country's youth have developed a kind of gallows humor.
At least amongst the urban cognoscenti, Russian witch house already seems to be on its way out."A lot of teens tried to be fashionable and cool; torn tights and classic Adidas jackets appeared everywhere," Nikolskaya says. "As a result, now different organizations create witch house parties just to make money. People with delicate aesthetic tastes (lol) understand that the is dying."
"Nowadays, Russian clubbers enjoy a 'new style," she continues. "Gabber-rave-hardcore music with colorful sportive clothes, MDMA, and aggressive bald guys. We will see the result!"
Even if the phrase "witch house" eventually goes out of style, I'll bet depressing, synth-y goth music sticks around Russia in the same way it's hung around the US for decades, evolving and mutating with the times, while picking up and shedding different labels. Egedy agrees that it's all the same, in a way. "Once witch house got too popular, they all became seapunks, that was the next thing. Once seapunk became uncool, they all started talking about health goth." Hype cycles may change, but the seduction of dark music is forever.
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter