I was hugely into Grunge in the 90s. I’ll never forget when a mate of mine came back from visiting its home and decreed it “the most miserable place on earth”. I was gutted. Maybe, however, it is such surroundings that fuel Seattle duo Bell Witch, whose blend of crushing Sludge, funereal melancholy and occasional Americana first bewitched the senses three years ago. Interest is high in Four Phantoms (Profound Lore), the band’s sophomore album, and yours truly is frothing at the mouth…
The emotions of a suppurating soul, in the moments before Experience kills it and undiluted cynicism sets in, are unbelievably raw; that capacity to feel true longing, joy and pain fighting with its dying breath. I’m not quite there…yet. There’s a feeling that these guys have really lived the anger and misery that exudes from every pore here and, when the almighty chord, drumbeat and roar combination explodes through the bassline of opener ‘Suffocation, A Burial:…’, accompanied by some sorrowful chimes, it creates simultaneously a feeling of euphoria, and a fearful despair of nothingness. Each note sparing, heightening the impact and more fully conveying the acuity of bitterness and sadness.
There’s real songcraft here; everything having its place and arranged with both passion and precision. Another explosion follows a brief lull of forlorn incantation, the melodic chords piercing every leaden punch. You’re aware it’s coming yet, when it does, its unfathomable weight disembowels, with Dylan Desmond‘s terrifying Blackened scream increasing the chills and the emptiness. This colossal opening really embodies that sense of personal loss and implosive grief; the agonies of the harmonised tones which lead into the last five minutes of this 22-minute epic duelling with Adrian Guerra‘s harrowing roars; the tension, power and mournful ecstasy almost unbearable.
The sparing chords of ‘Suffocation, a Drowning:…’, heavy to the head as an opiate and to the heart as a sudden arrest, possess a staggering delicacy enhanced by the stark guest voice of Aerial Ruin‘s Erik Moggridge; an evocative dark-folk delivery not unlike Art Garfunkel‘s deeper moments. The first half of this gorgeous yet soul-rending track is a sequence of crushing bass riffs and single beats, disturbing yet emotive solos and devastating harmonies, contrasting the subject matter yet sounding completely organic. The change in tone to the second half is similarly begun, so subtly it’s almost unnoticed – a more sinister exclamation in the solo chords introducing a period of brutalised roars and screams which only briefly affects the melancholy allure; returning but wearing an hooded cloak, the crushing power now swirling around slightly piqued yet honeyed vocals. The serenely mellow bass notes closing this quite staggering track ensure an almost stifled epiphany; the depth of meaning, the finality, truly felt.
It’s in marked contrast to the horrifying blast of sound crawling from the opening atmospheric ambience of album closer ‘Judgement, In Air:…’: the death throes of an apocalypse, the deep roar still counteracted by lamenting chords, the drums titanic and deafening in their resonance, shrouded in hypnotic swells of sound, the whole seeps like a mix of honey and tar from the speakers, a dying body summoning one last effort to crawl to its desired resting place: a brief howl of anguish, a final, writhing squall…and it ends.
This won’t be for everyone. If slow, sad, oppressive, Sludgy Doom isn’t your thing then you’re unlikely to be attracted to this incredible piece of work. Those who are, however, captivated by the mix of Pallbearer, Profetus, and Primitive Man‘s fulminating bitterness and the invention and rare Blackened edges of Inter Arma, all wrapped up in a seething amalgam of horror and beauty, will appreciate the wonder of a band beyond superlative and for whom there is no peak. Bell Witch continue to confound, enthral, terrify and move in equal measure; and in creating a second album of such weight and emotion prove themselves peerless.
Stop the wondering. This is the album for our twisted, corrupt, hubristic times and, arguably, the album of this century.