The greatest domestic purveyors of funeral doom since Evoken.
Bell Witch has spent the totality of its recorded existence at the forefront of the funeral doom subgenre, underpinning the grinding noise of stretched-out riffs with a plaintive, mournful quality that has turned heads since 2012’s debut Longing. Four Phantoms confirmed the group as arguably the best domestic purveyors of the style since Evoken, though soon after the bass/drum duo of Dylan Desmond and Adrien Guerra dissolved when the latter’s alcoholism resulted in his departure from the group, leaving Desmond to soldier on with replacement drummer/vocalist Jesse Shreibman to complete tour dates and start work on a follow-up album. Doom metal’s natural preoccupation with death meant that Mirror Reaper, a haunted rumination on the space between life and the great beyond, was already composed by the time Guerra died in his sleep in May 2016. But as was the case when Nick Cave’s mostly completed Skeleton Tree was interrupted by his son’s passing, Mirror Reaper is inexorably reshaped by its sudden metatextual context, and the duo’s reconfigurations in the wake of their friend’s death makes the album Bell Witch’s most unsettling reflection to date.
A continuation of its predecessor’s compositional ambition, Mirror Reaper weaves in wildly contrasting passages across its 83-minute track, complicating the usual doom grind with acoustic passage, choral chants and electronic ambience. In fact, it takes a few minutes for a metal riff to even enter the picture, exploding suddenly in tandem with a cymbal crash that blows the opening of Desmond’s elegiacally spaced, high-necked bass chords out of the water. A faint, hissing synthesizer wail redolent of some of John Carpenter’s early scores fills a few gaps in that intro, lacing the mournful, cautious beginning with something darker to prefigure the coming storm. From there, the track unfurls in broad sections, from the extended doom passage near the start, complete with chanted baritone vocals and death growls from the pair as well as guest vocalist Erik Moggridge. Around 18 minutes in, though, the composition shifts more toward post-rock, fading back to roaming, lonely basslines that reverberate in negative space, drawn toward the occasional sonar pings of Shreibman’s percussion.
The rhythm-section-as-band layout of Bell Witch is a fascinating contrast for the direction many of the peers have taken. Doom metal’s love of low-end frequencies has left guitars so downtuned that bassists are increasingly seen by upstart groups as an unnecessary expense. Desmond’s bass playing thus comes across as something of a corrective to that notion, highlighting the instrument’s versatility of tone and expression. Consider the loneliness evoked by those instances of his bass singing short, lost chords during quieter moments, or how deeply he layers overdubs about a quarter of the way through the track to explore several registers at once. The inherently melancholic whine of the bass underpins the mournful quality of the music, focusing on mood more than simple heaviness. Shreibman, meanwhile, favors tom strikes that sound as if he leapt down onto his drums from a great height before arduously climbing back up to do it again. Cymbals ring out for added emphasis on both the bass and the vocals, but in general Shreibman’s greatest contribution is his sense of space and reserve, only employing eruptions of noise when absolutely required.
Funeral doom has always lived up to the death-obsessed intimation of its namesake, but few bands (even Bell Witch themselves) have ever wrenched as much pain from their music as Desmond and Shreibman do here. Notes are not played so much as extracted, raised from some deep chasm of sorrow that makes every single chord sound as if it took intense effort to play. Shreibman adds fills of agony and anger to his plodding percussion, sending shockwaves across the afterlife. Vocals compound the sense of loss, and the duo even throw in a recording of Guerra singing, a haunting dispatch from beyond the veil.
The beauty and terror of the recording flags only in a few spots where Desmond and Shreibman drag out their lugubrious dirge a bit too long without changing things up. This is most noticeable toward the end as the track winds down for more than 10 full minutes, its final, grieving vocals, fading out until all that is left is several minutes of air whistling through a desolate landscape as Desmond’s bass moans and Shreibman gradually drifts further and further into space. It’s undoubtedly moving, but the effect wears off given the sheer time allotted to this extended outro, which stretches the material outside of CD length to no great benefit. Still, this is a minor quibble in the otherwise agonizing outpouring of grief, funeral doom made tragically literal as Desmond and Shreibman pay tribute to their fallen friend. If Mirror Reaper lacks some of the more adventurous compositional surprises of its predecessor, it nonetheless cements Bell Witch as the greatest domestic purveyors of the subgenre since Evoken, and few records of any style this year contain the same level of profound emotion.