Artist: Bell Witch
Album: Four Phantoms
Label: Profound Lore Records
Bell Witch’s latest offering, Four Phantoms, wastes no time making itself known. Where 2012’s Longing was melancholic and languorous in its introduction and relied upon waves of intestine-rattling bass to set its tone, Four Phantoms takes a scant 45 seconds to introduce a wrenching melody. The effect is at once intimate and vast, and the opener “Suffocation, A Burial 1: (Awoken, Breathing Teeth),” sets the stage for the mountainous territory that Bell Witch set out to explore. What sets Bell Witch apart from most funeral doom groups is their respect for negative space. It’s clear from these compositions that Adrian Guerra and Dylan Desmond understand that volume and distortion aren’t the sole constituents of a song’s atmosphere. In each piece, Desmond’s bass gets ample breathing room, and he stretches his lines out just enough to create a sense of dramatic heft, a tension that resolves itself in the most terrific ways. Returning to that opening track, “Suffocation…” opens on a huge note, and then recedes into one of those pockets of echoed bass, creating a valley of negative space, as deep as any subterranean abyss created by their peers in Lycus or Loss. The duo follows this passage with a tremendous crescendo that dares you not to headbang along. This continues with a phenomenal riff, courtesy of Desmond, who channels his time with Seattle doom crew Samothrace to incredible effect. Desmond’s pedal-shifted bass is what makes Bell Witch’s sound especially unique in the realm of doom. In his hands, the instrument alternately weeps, sings, and roars. It’s a monumental sound, and Desmond’s ear for melodic leads allows him to showcase his prowess. His tone is immense, and the bass guitar creates a leaden, weighty effect – each riff transforms into a melancholy death knell.
That’s not to say that Desmond’s leads dominate the record. The lighter passages are accentuated with clean vocals, courtesy of both Guerra and Desmond. These passages keep the music afloat, lest it get dragged too far into the depths. These segments function as lanterns in the gloom, moments of peace in a sea of unrelenting torment. It’s rather fitting, given the subject matter of Four Phantoms, that Bell Witch don’t fully embrace the abyss. The music evokes a feeling of purgatory, being suspended halfway between life and death. With one foot in the grave, it’s easier to look up and ponder your life. This is exactly what Bell Witch do, as each song title and the album’s lyrics refer to various grisly demises and their accompanying phenomenologies. Just as it seems the oppressive doom is about to get overbearing, Desmond and Guerra pull back, approaching the abyss but never quite taking the plunge. It’s thrilling to hear, and it’s indicative of two seasoned veterans at work. Nowhere is this more evident than “Suffocation, A Drowning II – Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever)”, where everything clicks into place for Bell Witch, and their sound reaches an apex. “Somniloquy II…” strikes the perfect balance between calm and storm, light and dark, life and death. It’s one of the more perfect tracks I’ve heard in this subgenre, and it’s what elevates Four Phantoms from great to really exceptional. Without a doubt, this is one of the finer releases of 2015, doubly so if you often find yourself contemplating your own mortality.