Holland and Donoghue packed up a U-Haul and drove to Los Angeles, but attempts to finish the album weren’t successful. “Just building any relationship or structure to put it out, it sounds super easy, but it’s not,” Donoghue said. “And I felt like if I talked about it, I would jinx it — and then we just won’t do it.”
Holland returned to Michigan, and Donoghue got a job installing windows. But with the help of Henry Laufer, better known as the electronic musician Shlohmo, the record was coaxed into completion. In an email, Laufer said the music had been scattered across locations and lost files, “but the songs were undoubtedly amazing, even just as demos.” The duo spent weeks at a time in Laufer’s home studio, working obsessively, as Laufer became part cheerleader, part “spiritual guru.” “In a time of such garbage, this was all I wanted and needed to hear,” he said.
Though it took 10 years, the punishing wall-of-sound collages and echoing melodies of “Fires in Heaven” sound right on time. In part, that’s because of the band’s quiet but enduring influence on today’s musical landscape: the melancholy raps of Drain Gang and GothBoiClique, the murky pop of Billie Eilish. “Salem’s sound was so influential for younger people because it showed music could be made in a very lo-fi and D.I.Y. way and still be extremely visceral and impactful,” Egedy said.
This time, it’s easier to hear the beauty in the darkness, from the swirling synths of the first single “Starfall” to the funeral march of “Red River,” with a half-sung chorus that pleads, “Angels with burning wings, watch over me.”
Holland and Donoghue said they have been thinking a lot about heaven and hell, more as realms of Earth than the afterlife. “Maybe there isn’t really good or evil, and what people think that is is just, like, interchangeable,” said Holland; Nicole Bessek’s painting of a demon peeking from behind an angel appears on the album’s cover.