PICK OF THE WEEK: Bell Witch’s oppressive sadness hits dark heights with ‘Four Phantoms’

Bell WitchProfound sorrow is not something for which to be ashamed. That’s been something that’s changed slightly publicly, with the acknowledgement of depression as an actual illness and not a form of weakness, and when that element is present in music, it can blow down castle walls.

Seattle-based funeral doom band Bell Witch have had a stranglehold on the expression of sadness and sorrow over the course of an amazing, eye-opening 2011 demo, as well as their gargantuan triumph of a debut record “Longing” that landed three years ago. Now, the duo has returned with “Four Phantoms,” a concept record of sorts about souls trapped within the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air and how their encapsulation there has led to their torment. It might not be linear storytelling like most records of this ilk, but certainly the suffering endured in each spot ties together this whole thing. So does the soul-crushing heaviness and emotional smothering that’s present in the band’s music. Even if you knew nothing about these songs and their purpose before listening, you can’t help but be darkened by what you hear. It’s there, organically in the music, a dark shadow that hovers over and reminds that dark tidings always are here. They never go away.

Bell Witch coverLed by the two-headed beast of Dylan Desmond (bass/vocals) and Adrian Guerra (drums/vocals), Bell Witch have expanded upon what they created on “Longing” to make for a bigger, headier machine. They explore the damper spots of their sound, expand the range of singing further, and push these cuts to their very limits, never clocking in at under 10 minutes. In fact, two of the cuts go longer than 20 minutes each, and never is there a moment within them not draped in substance and power. It’s one hell of an undertaking, with “Four Phantoms” lasting a little over 66 minutes spread over four tracks, but it is gut wrenching and moving every step of the way. It’s the year’s first doom masterpiece.

Each song title is a mouthful, and we begin with 22:39-long “Suffocation, A Burial: I – Awoken (Breathing Teeth)” that opens in as grim a fashion as possible before erupting in an anguish of melody. The song proceeds to crush your soul over and over again, with clean vocals rising up and conveying the messages of being confined to the earth, and long, devastating sections of playing that make you feel the passage of the ages. Later on, a cool, gothic wind picks up, adding a chill to the surroundings, as well as dreary passageways. The song then hits a convulsion, with the power shaking you, growls reaching into your heart and squeezing it, and a slow, pounding finish that reminds you that you’ve been stretched to your limits. “Judgement, In Fire: I – Garden (Of Blooming Ash)” follows and is the shortest cut at 10:18. It also is weighty and heavy, with the music glimmering above the din in spots and the growls hanging in the air and haunting. Clean calls eventually replace those wails, with drone settling in and wafting like a ghost and the pace slowing down. The scene can mesmerize and cause you to stare for eons, but the echoing drums that are pounded bring you back to life and into this plane of existence.

“Suffocation, A Drowning: II – Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever)” is the longest journey at 22:55, and it features Erik Moggridge (Aerial Ruin) on guest vocals. The track has a deathrock feel at the start, as the music trickles and a damp vapor sets in. There also are moments when the song feels a bit folkish, which makes sense with Moggridge’s presence. The singing goes into higher register, with psychedelic elements blowing in, while the other corners of the song burn and soar. The playing then catapults into the stars, as guttural growling meets up with the clean singing, the band bashes you hard, and then things dissolve back into the lonely night, dripping away caustically. Closer “Judgement, In Air: II – Felled (In Howling Wind)” opens in a bed of noise, with slow-clubbing playing greeting you and deep growls carving a path toward your psyche. The melodies swell and keep growing larger, while each element swirls into a woefully mournful passage that could drive a stake into your heart. The vocals are ugly and obviously pained as they reach the final minutes, where a dark scene gets even blacker, strange sounds combine to create a wall-sized force, and the generous mashing finally loosens its grip, fading out but leaving massive emotional bruising in its wake. If you need a moment to understand what you’ve just endured, you’re likely not alone.

The gravity, weightiness, and sadness packed into this record are obvious and welcoming. To embrace darkness and the fact that we all feel it is a positive thing that, weirdly, could lead to healthier living. The four souls trapped in these songs known anguish, fear, and frustration brought on by their situations, and certainly there are things in our own journeys we can apply to these situations to get some clarity. Or just to sink to the bottom and feel awful for a while. Bell Witch’s grasp on darkness is at strangulation level, and what they accomplish on “Four Phantoms” has to place them high in the conversation of the world’s most important and emotive doom metal bands.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/BellWitchDoom

To buy the album, go here: https://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

For more on the label, go here: https://www.profoundlorerecords.com/

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