It seemed to me that Bell Witch had painted themselves into a corner with their 2017 release Mirror Reaper. For those of you who don’t know, Mirror Reaper is an ambitious, single song, funeral doom metal opus, clocking in at almost an hour and a half. After hearing it for the first time I asked myself where can this band go from here? They had pushed to boundaries of the listener/musician relationship to the maximum. No one in their right mind could ask a fan to listen to anything larger or more grandiose then that album.
So, Bell Witch, you are at the dead end of the road, now what? Where can you go from here? How can you push yourself to face new challenges and progress? The only 3 choices I saw where: 1. Stop. Stop their musical journey all together, drop the mike and walk away. 2. Turnaround, regressing and revisiting what they have already done musically. 3. Continue to walk down the dead end, fall off the cliff, fail miserably, and potentially jeopardize and cheapen the legitimacy of previous releases. Bell Witch reached the cliffs edge, did an about face and saw a fork in the previous traveled path. They shifted gears, added a musician to the album, brought some new ingredients to the recipe, and took the hidden uncharted path up into the mountain pass. They found a way. Stygian Bough Volume I is the next step on their musical journey.
I have always been fascinated by duos in music. It is amazing to me that Bell Witch has always been able to produce such a sprawling, massive sound with just two musicians (bass guitar and drum). Stygian Bough Volume I, their latest release, is actually a collaboration with Erik Moggridge, who makes up the solo project Aerial Ruin. This guitar and the third creative mind that drives it, shakes up the sound Bell Witch has aligned itself too. Although this album has an undeniable Bell Witch sound that is recognizable from the first note, Aerial Ruin brings changes in the subtle nuisances.
I feel Bell Witch, as a stand alone duo shoves a listener face first in the emotion and the tormented despair of the music to experience it. The addition of Aerial Ruin and all that is brought by him somehow seems to make the listener feel a bit more as an observer of the emotions not experiencing them first hand. To express the sound of a trio vs duo we need to look no farther than the 1984 fantasy cult classic “The Neverending Story” as a vehicle for comparison. As a duo, the Bell Witch sound puts the listener in the deadly swamps of sadness struggling with their trusty steed Artex, trying not to be overcome and sinking into the unending/ever building sadness. As a trio, they put the you safely on the back of your magic luck dragon Falkor as you survey the surroundings taking in the full scope of the muck and mire, from a distance. Still experiencing the emotions but as a spectator not a participant. Aerial Ruin keeps you out of the mud, you are taking in the scenery from high above.
Aerial Ruin brings a folksy sensibility to the music with acoustic guitars and and familiar vocals (as he has performed vocals on Bell Witch releases of the past). His evocative, ethereal voice coupled with an eerie simplistic guitar paints a very distinct portrait of emotional introspection. Add the Bell Witch booms, screams and highs and it creates dichotomies of ups and downs, loud and quiet, electric vs acoustic, inward pointing quiet reflections vs outward projected harsh screams. The combined talents of the artists covers many levels and gradients in the sound, giving each artist the spot light but also using them to juxtapose against each other.
“Heaven Torn Low I (the passage)” uses the stripped down musings of Aerial Ruin to set the stage for the jolting boom of a thunderclap that Bell Witch is known to unleash. The song starts with only vocals and acoustic guitar playing spectral, cyclical, arpeggios. There are no drums, then the song builds almost imperceptible layers of synthy ocean waves. There is an ominous and atmospheric ebb and flow of delicate airiness to the song writing. Different pieces and parts drift in and out as the song opens up. Three quarters of the way through the song everything is stripped back in a true minimalist form that Aerial Ruin excels at. It leaves a guitar plucking notes in a swirling echoey void. What Part I lacks in heaviness, its makes up with in airy and dreamy.
Part II of “Heaven Torn Low” drops in with the heavy ringing electric bass, a monastic chanting organ’s droning and crashing cymbals with hammering drums that only Bell Witch can prescribe. The band move so slow, that at times they are playing the spaces and silence as much as they are playing the notes.
If you were put off by their last stand alone release Mirror Reaper, give Stygian Bough Volume I a chance. Mirror Reaper was an anomaly, it was a stand alone thing that is unfair, really, to compare other albums to. Mirror Reaper was not a forgiving dance partner. It twisted and twirled how it wanted to whether you stepped along with it or not. A single song taking up four sides of vinyl was more then willing to step on toes and leave its partner on the side of the dance floor drinking punch. Stygian Bough Volume I is much more welcoming and interested in working with its partner by making an effort to engage musician and listener. I feel this album revisits an older proven style (at times heavy flashbacks to earlier releases), but not without challenging, changing and progressing the sound. In many ways Aerial Ruin makes Bell Witch, Bell Witch Plus.
Out now via: Profound Lore
- The Bastard Wind
- Heaven Torn Low I (the passage)
- Heaven Torn Low II (the toll)
- The Unbodied Air