Home Music Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin: Stygian Bough Volume I

Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin: Stygian Bough Volume I

In many respects, the collaborative album Stygian Bough Volume I merely makes official a longtime pairing. Dark folk guru Erik Moggridge of Aerial Ruin has lent both vocals and guitar to all prior records by funeral doom duo Bell Witch, and his morose, clean vocals contributed a significant portion of the somber grief that pervaded 2017’s Mirror Reaper, Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman’s epic dirge tribute to deceased friend and bandmate Adrian Guerra. Dialing down the punishing crawl of its predecessor’s single, grueling 83-minute track, Stygian Bough nonetheless runs over an hour with five tracks, four of which are really two tracks split into contrasting sections. Even so, this is no mere retread of Bell Witch’s sound. With Moggridge enjoying equal billing, he adds much more of his own sound to the record, producing music perfectly balanced between his brittle, ominous folk and the band’s crushing bass-’n’-drum roar.

Opener “The Bastard Wind” sets the tone of the record by using its 19 minutes to allow Aerial Ruin and Bell Witch to shape the composition both separately and together. It begins with Moggridge playing alone with his acoustic guitar, his riffs spacious but firmly strummed as his reverb-soaked voice sets an ethereal tone. The lyrics reflect the death-drive fantasy of doom metal, with Moggridge airily intoning “Second waiting / The bastard wind/ Left you swaying but held again/ So allaying, you’ll call to the veil/ Where bled you fail.” His affectless, midrange vocal delivery doesn’t quite have the keening heartache of, say, Patrick Walker of Warning and 40 Watt Sun, but there’s nonetheless a moving sense of defeat in his deliberately cold, detached singing. Funeral doom vocalists like Desmond tend to take death metal growls and turn them into phlegmatic gurgles to capture the sense of some colossal void swallowing the band and the world, but Moggridge’s plaintive voice offers a glimpse into how devastating the subgenre could be if it broadened its horizons.

After this brief intro, Desmond’s bass rings out a soft solo that establishes a crawling bassline before he and Shreibman kick up the volume into a crunchy, hissing dirge. Desmond’s quarter-speed bass slides contrast with soaring electric guitar lines from Moggridge, who plays around the middle of the neck and floats over the swirling miasma that Bell Witch conjures. For the remaining 15 minutes, the track drifts back and forth from overwhelming, droning riffs to brief respites in the eye of the storm. Moggridge and Desmond trade vocals, the former looking up at a gray sky and the latter peering down at the hole that has just opened in spacetime.

“Heaven Torn Low” is split into two tracks subtitled “The Passage” and “The Toll.” The first is another solo showcase for Moggridge, if anything even more brittle and longing than his softly-sung intro for the opener. Pushing his narrow range to the edge of its upper register, he slurs lines like “Weep of the woe to mirror the ire” as if struggling to contain his emotions. You can hear the scrapes of fingers dragging between frets, adding a folky tone that gradually blossoms into a more complicated guitar pattern and multitracked vocals that bring in Desmond singing cleanly as a lower contrast. Here and there, faint electronic groans pulse as the guitar ebbs and flows from intricate passages to sparse, ringing chords. Running close to 13 minutes, “The Passage” could easily have been a bore, but if anything there is more variety and tonal contrast here than in the eruption of “The Toll,” which slams back into metal. Funeral doom isn’t exactly known for easily differentiated tunes, but Shreibman’s heavy use of organ and synthesizer here adds an almost liturgical tone to what might otherwise sound too much like “The Bastard Wind.”

After a four-minute, quiet “Prelude” that favors delicate basslines from Desmond and more churchlike organ from Shreibman, things come to a close with “The Unbodied Air.” Here the limits and rewards of funeral doom are on full display. At times lapsing into a hypnotically locked pattern, the track nonetheless flips the script with the most riff variance of the album. Around five minutes in, Shreibman falls into a rolling beat that causes Desmond to pick up the pace of his bashed-out chords, a change that makes the subsequent retreat back into sludgy murk both disappointing and all the more impactful. Then, the track segues into an extended passage that would seem like the outro had it not started seven minutes into a 19-minute song. Organ and guitar gently play in a mix of empty space, the sound of nothing nearly consuming the music. This haunting, elegiac stretch resolves back into a surprisingly complex doom showcase of climbing bass riffs and heavily processed guitar before the album ends on perhaps the most uplifting note of Bell Witch’s career. The instruments float upward with Moggridge’s vocals as the death that informs every inch of the record gives way to a blissful journey into a less hellish afterlife: “Beyond the burning valley where they eye/To defy, will only see the sky.”

This doom-folk crossover brings out the best in both parties in a worthy follow-up to the musicians’ previous, definitive work together.
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