On their most varied release to date, the Seattle masters of funeral doom team up with their folk muse to create a collaboration for the ages.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
In American folklore, the story of the BELL WITCH is one that chills the bones of the inhabitants of Robertson County, Tennessee to this very day. The legend spoke of an apparition with the ability to speak, alter the environment and even shapeshift. With a legend like that, it was only a matter of time before a heavy metal band would take the name and a Seattle duo would do just that.
BELL WITCH formed in Seattle, Washington with the pairing of vocalist/bassist Dylan Desmond and drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra. The two begin almost immediately setting themselves up as a force to be reckoned with in the metal world by releasing a show stopping demo in 2011 that blurred the lines between the sludgy amp worship of NOOTHGRUSH and CORRUPTED with the crushing weight of funeral doom from groups such as ASUNDER and THERGOTHON. When 2012 arrived, BELL WITCH released their highly anticipated debut record entitled Longing. While most of the songs were strictly performed by the duo, there was one other presence on the record. That other presence would come in the form of Erik Moggridge, who would contribute clean vocals on the track Rows (of Endless Waves). The vocal performance would lead to many BELL WITCH fans clamoring to discover the records by Moggridge’s project AERIAL RUIN, known to retain a feeling like that of BELL WITCH. Moggridge would return to contribute on the band’s 2015 outing Four Phantoms, which would also unfortunately spell the end for one member of BELL WITCH.
Not too longer after the release of Four Phantoms, Adrian Guerra would exit the group and would be replaced by Jesse Shreibman due to personal conflicts. Sadly, Guerra passed away shortly after on May 17th, 2016 at the extremely young age of 35. The loss felt by Desmond was immeasurable, but he knew that Guerra would want him and Shreibman to continue what they had originally set forth to do. What came as a result would be a crowning achievement for funeral doom when BELL WITCH released their 83 minute opus Mirror Reaper in October of 2017. While past BELL WITCH efforts only had three people, Desmond, Guerra and Moggridge contributing guest vocals, a fourth voice would be heard.
Alongside Desmond, Moggridge and the newly minted Shreibman, Guerra would call out from beyond the grave with the use of unused vocal takes from Four Phantoms. It was the ultimate tribute to a fallen comrade and many across the world, including myself, found healing in the wretched arms of Mirror Reaper. With all this backstory in mind and with the expectation of having to follow up a now modern classic, BELL WITCH have now decided to fully take advantage of their friendship with Moggridge on the release of Stygian Bough, Volume 1. A collaboration in every sense of the word, these three men have come to together to fuse so many different musical languages to create a testament to suffering. And just how, you may ask, could BELL WITCH adequately follow up their disputed masterpiece with collaboration record? It’s time for you to pay Charon because we are about to cross the Styx into funeral doom’s uncharted and choppy waters.
In doing press before the release of the record, the trio discussed how to proceed with their joint venture. In the end, they settled upon a sound that would combine the signature heaviness of BELL WITCH’s funeral doom mastery, the breathtaking folk beauty of ULVERS’s Kveldssanger and the triumphant melancholy of the CANDLEMASS sophomore elegy Nightfall. Now before you go thinking, “WHY IN THE HELL IS BELL WITCH WANTING TO SOUND LIKE MESSIAH MARCOLIN EPIC DOOM? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!?!?”, take a chill pill and let me assure you that this is FAR from that sound.
On opening track The Bastard Wind, the listener is instantly greeted with familiar vocals from Desmond before the sky collapses with soaring notes from his six string bass and Moggridge's guitar. This is the first time that electric guitar has ever made an appearance on a BELL WITCH record, which speaks volumes to the amount of creativity the trio had in store. There are parts where the guitar work takes you to another plane much like the tracks from Nightfall before settling in along with the bass as Shreibman introduces his monstrous roar into the fray. While sitting at a whopping 19 minutes in length, this track does not feel like a drag especially for funeral doom of this caliber.
Following track Heaven Torn Low I (The Passage) is a soft 12 minute acoustic number sung mostly by Moggridge with glimmers of the unrestrained majesty of Kveldssanger’s sonic footprint. While that track keeps you in a calm and relaxed, albeit sad, mindset, it’s sister track Heaven Torn Low II (The Toll) that features a more straightforward doom metal aesthetic, recalling the despondent moments of PALLBEARER’s debut Sorrow & Extinction. Building on gigantic riffs, the song also layers itself with welcome touches of organ courtesy of the immensely talented Shreibman, who performs not only vocals and drums, but the organ and piano on this release. At eight and half minutes, it sits as a noticeably short song within the context of the rest, but it nonetheless sets itself apart amongst its fellow tracks. It even gave me a chilling reminder of Desmond’s pre-BELL WITCH band SAMOTHRACE and their 2012 album Reverence to Stone. From here, the Prelude features soft acoustic melodies with distant organ drones for added emotion before giving way to a squall of feedback to lead right into the monolithic closer.
The Unbodied Air hits like a ten ton hammer of ASUNDER channeling AHAB from the get-go. The bass from Desmond and the weighted fills of Shreibman and Moggridge’s guitar droning create a chilling opening that could rival any other extreme doom band out there. Moggridge’s vocals carry a sense of loss while Desmond chants in the foreground as the track lurches forward like an unending caravan. Discordant soloing adds to the utter despair that fills the song and album. Desmond even takes a moment to let his bass work shine alongside the guitars in some higher fret riffing as Shreibman emerges as a beast from the darkest abyss. His drum fills on this track are some of his best, especially in the context of mixing sounds such as this. At roughly the 7:45 mark, organ reenters the scene to great effect. It’s almost like standing in a massive cathedral and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of its vastness. Before long, a soft guitar line adds to the feeling of raised gooseflesh. Moggridge laments in his high tenor as the plaintive organ chords color his performance. It is a vocal performance that stands as possibly the best on the record as it causes the mind to drift on every syllable from Erik’s mouth. The black clouds of doom then return on a heavily reverberated guitar slide and the droning sets in once more. It’s a feeling that the artwork of Adam Burke conveys perfectly as you stare longingly at a wild sea with stars in the foreground and a pathway leading to some distant galaxy. The track ends on a swell of organ and feedback as you are left to fully transcend.
While I feel it doesn’t nearly top or match the emotional depth and weight of Mirror Reaper, I believe it was a smart move for BELL WITCH to fully join forces with AERIAL RUIN to create a doom metal record that not only breaks conventions, but leaves one to honestly contemplate what they have heard. I hate to coin a term that shouldn’t be, but whatever. This to me sounds like what could be tentatively labeled “progressive funeral doom” in that it combines the sonic heaviness and stark subject matter of funeral doom with the classical breeziness and sophistication of 70’s progressive rock. It may be way too early for that but man did BELL WITCH and AERIAL RUIN really create something wholly unique on this release. And much like their namesake, they were able to shapeshift into a familiar entity with a different goal in mind. How’s that for a haunting?
Stygian Bough, Volume 1 arrives June 26th via Profound Lore Records. Get yours HERE.