Bell Witch – Four Phantoms
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It’s not hard to think of the supernatural while listening to Seattle progressive funeral doom two-piece Bell Witch. It’s not just the name of their new album, Four Phantoms (Profound Lore), that connotes the otherwordly, or that the band name comes from an Appalachian folk legend of a spirit haunting the Bell family in the 1800s, although that’s certainly enough by itself. (The Bell Witch is also the name of a 1994 Mercyful Fate EP, but I’m overlooking that.)
It’s that the music made by bassist and vocalist Dylan Desmond (Samothrace) and drummer Adrian Guerra (Sod Hauler) is atmospheric and spacious to the point that you can’t help but think of shadowy things that might or might not be there, fluttering movements out of the corner of your eye, a creak on the floor or a touch on your shoulder when you’re alone. In short, the music is eerie and doleful in a way that, to me, easily conjures the thought of spirits reaching out from another world.
It’s also not hard to let your mind wander when listening to Bell Witch. The opening track of Four Phantoms runs for 22 minutes and change—the opening track of 2012’s Longing was also roughly that long. The songs get shorter as the album progresses, and though they don’t become more sonically dense, they do become more emotionally devastating.
Over the course of an hour, each of the albums four songs relay ghost stories related to Aristotle's four classical elements: earth, fire, water and air. Desmond plays his 6-string bass with a focus on strummed chords and two-handed tapping passages—often you can’t even tell there’s no guitar. Guerra’s drumming matches Desmond’s finesse in giving the song atmosphere. Each musician contributes separate aspects of the music--Guerra’s spacious, deliberate drumming isn’t trying to be technical, he’s playing only to provide the rhythmic backbone and some grounding while Desmond provides the melody to carry the song. Guerra and Desmond both sing, with Guerra specializing in abyssal bellows and Desmond tackling most of the light, mournful cleans, (although he can also drop into a deep growl). The lyrics are often chanted. It’s as if the spirit is remembering the days it spent covered with skin and recounting the empty, endless expanses of time since then, sending thoughts out across the aether like radio broadcasts into space. Will anyone hear? Can anyone hear? On the second track, “Judgement, In Fire_ I - Garden (Of Blooming Ash), ”Desmond stretches out the lyrics “The skin that I'd worn / I'll wrap my eyes in wrath / An endless path / I am the blooming ash” as if he’s been singing those lyrics forever. The music alone is funereal doom, but when combined with the quiet, glacially paced lyrics that evoke a vast emptiness, the effect is more mournful than many of the band’s contemporaries.
As with Longing Erik Moggridge (Aerial Ruin) once again provides guest vocals, this time on the third track, “Suffocation, a drowning II. Somniloquy (the distance of forever).” For me, this is the most powerful track. It’s the darkest, and the one with the most of both the growling and screeching vocals. I dig Moggridge’s singing, and the lyrics “Like bathing in ash / The burnt flesh on everything / Drowning in skin / Again and again” stuck with me. Drowning in skin. Is that what we in the realm of the living do every day? Are we so encumbered by our mortal wrappings that we’re slowly drowning day after day and can’t even tell? I wonder if the memory of skin would be like that of a smothering shroud the phantom would want to be rid of or a longing of something pleasurable they can’t quite recall. The track ends without drums, a lighter and airy prefix to the last track, “Judgement, In Air_ II - Felled (In Howling Wind),” which evokes a howling wind, but not in the sense of a tornado.
The last 10 minutes is tattered burial cloth, sun-baked bones becoming porous, and sand sifting through fingers that can no longer grasp. And then it ends. The window into this spirit world closes, but the listener can’t help but keep straining an ear for that creak on the floor, waiting for that touch on the spine.
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