I always love it when bands strip their formula down to the bare essentials. When it’s done right, the results can be some of the most emotionally involving music you’ve ever heard. Consider the stripped-down quality of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, and you’ll know just what I mean. But not everyone can be Johnny Cash, unfortunately, and musical minimalism always runs the risk of boring the listener. The artist thus has quite the challenge set out for them – how do you engross your audience with such a small arsenal of tools on hand?
If there’s one group of musicians that know how to do this well, it’s doom heads. The early works of Om are beautiful in their mantric simplicity, and the sparseness of the early Swans recordings only serves to increase their levels of aural terror. And with only a bassist and a drummer to fill up their ranks, it is from these masterpieces that Bell Witch draws their inspiration. Drummer Adrian Guerra of Lethe and bassist Dylan Desmond, also of Lethe (and Samothrace) both share vocal duties, and paint a bleak picture like little else on the market today. Longing is dark, brooding, desperate, and definitely not for everyone.
This album easily lends itself to a palpable feeling of loneliness. It’s in the balance between deep death growling and slow, rhythmic chanting that makes up the vocal share of the album. It’s in the heavy beats and slow, subharmonic…uhhh…harmonies that make up most of the melodic work. Desmond’s able to get a wide range of tones out of his bass, from low-end rumbles to higher-pitched tenor notes that fill the place of guitar solos. However, each individual note and beat has plenty of room to reverberate, and the crushing silence that permeates the entire album almost feels like an instrument in itself. For this reason, it’s an album that’s best listened to alone, with headphones, very late at night.
But the album’s weakness comes in its tendencies toward monotony. The mood of the album never changes from crushing depression, and the pace never really picks up. For doomers like me who are perfectly content to listen to Dopesmoker on loop for the rest of their lives, this is nothing short of an endorsement. But those unfamiliar with doom metal – or who don’t care for it – will immediately be scared off by opener “Bails (Of Flesh)’s” bad vibes, to say nothing of its 21-minute runtime. Bell Witch know how to add just enough variance to keep things interested, though; Erik Moggridge’s guest vocal spot on “Rows (Of Endless Waves)” adds some welcome vocal diversity into the mix, and a film sample on “Beneath The Mask” adds even more of a creepy atmosphere to an album that’s already plenty haunting.
You should listen to Bell Witch if you like music to slit your wrists to, the kind of music that can give you nightmares if you fall asleep with it on. If that sounds like your fare, jump on this shit as soon as you can. But you shouldn’t go for it if you like more upbeat music, the kind of stuff that won’t hypothetically make you fall asleep if you put it on. As such, I think it’s best to recommend it with the warning label originally intended for Church of Misery’s Master of Brutality:
“Not for TREND. Not for CORPORATE ATTITUDE. Not for ‘STONER.’ Only TRUE DOOM MURDERHEADS.”