Album Review: Bell Witch - 'Four Phantoms'

Funeral doom duo Bell Witch delivers their most potent and emotive expression of grief yet with Four Phantoms.

Doom metal has always been a strange and querulous bed-mate to the rest of the metal world.

If one accepts heavy metal's first full enunciation into flesh as coming through Black Sabbath's debut (a stance not without detractors, but the most popular one by far), it is easy to create the traditional lineage of heavy groups, passing through Led Zeppelin and Rainbow and the like until finally arriving at Judas Priest and the bands directly inspired by them, which resemble heavy metal as it is most popularly known.

It is from this lineage that we get bands like Metallica, easily the biggest metal band that will ever be if we don't count Led Zeppelin as fully a metal band, as well as groups like Death, Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, Emperor, Megadeth, Pantera, and on.

Effectively all of what is well-known of metal comes from this very think branch of the family tree.

And yet doom seemed to arise simultaneously, bifurcating even at birth.

The title track of Black Sabbath's debut is a slow and dreadful dirge, spare, spacious, and grim, focusing on Satan's temptation and inevitable victory over a pleading human spirit.

While it is easy to see "Paranoid" and "Iron Man" and even "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" and "War Pigs" picking up the tempo and toughening up the attack to generate the types of metal, both extreme and not, that are best known, there is a more ethereal and doom-laden spirit to the title track that does not fit this paradigm so easily.

Almost immediately, this thread was seized. Witchfinder General, Pentagram, and Saint Vitus rose not too long after Judas Priest's debut, back when Priest still dabbled in the same dreary progressive and psychedelic gothic textures as Sabbath before fully finding their own voice.

They led to an alternate progression, plying their dark song-craft on slower material focused less on anger or rebellion or struggle and more on suffering and eternity and isolation. In short: On doom.

Like most smaller genres, doom metal eventually began to intermingle with its peers, including hardcore and extreme metal. It is from this mixed lineage that bands like Mastodon came from, a fact for which the world of rock is ever grateful (no matter how critical of their last two albums any given listener may be).

But there were groups within doom, encouraged by the goth rock, industrial, neo-folk, ethereal wave, ambient, and neoclassical of the 70s and 80s that sought to purify their doominess as opposed to mixing it with more active and aggressive forms.

It was not always about playing lower or slower but instead about tapping a sense of the forlorn, the aching, the damned, the grieved, the doomed.

It was from this progressive purification of approaches to doom metal that the sub-(sub?-)genre of funeral doom arose.

As the name implies, it is specific in its focus, aiming to elicit feelings of grief and the forlorn.

It is from this tradition that Bell Witch, named after the same Appalachian folk figure that inspired The Blair Witch Project, arises.

Bell Witch is a duo comprised of Dylan Desmond, former bassist for progressive doom metal band Samothrace, on six-string bass and vocals and Adrian Guerra on drums and vocals. It is remarkable, across both their debut and this record, the breadth of sound they are able to generate as a two-piece.

Desmond's bass-lines take full advantage of the range of a six-string bass, layered with effects and played with a two-hand tapping technique that allows him to create two or three lines at once, ranging from low to high.

He becomes not unlike a symphony unto himself, able to twist around his own lines better than a group possible could precisely because he knows them best.

(This ignores, of course, the mundane reality of sound recording that rhythm guitar tracks are almost always cut by only one of the guitarists and often with the same guitar so as to keep the tone and internal timing of the song as regular as possible for the recording.)

Guerra's drumming takes a lot from Nick Mason's work in Pink Floyd, ultimately sharing beds with Ringo's work in the Beatles as well.

It is a slow, patient, and spacious approach to drumming, trusting the string instruments to carry most of the tune so that the percussion can instead be used to emphasize or lightly embellish certain lines.

His work, too, comes across orchestral to Desmond's symphonic approach to basswork; evoking gongs and two-handed cymbal crashes and tympani's and thunderous concert bass drums more than he evokes the image of a traditional drum kit.

They share vocal duties, with Guerra providing the lower register extreme vocals and Desmond offering the higher rasps and shrieks, as well as a portion of the clean vocals.

(The others are handled by a guest vocalist, the same which appeared on their debut.)

The duo not only ply their craft to create lush, nearly symphonic or at least orchestral passages of funereal doom, but also lean at times toward the minimalism inherent to a two-piece, dropping away to solo bass passages or long, agonizing notes punctuated by simple resounding drum hits.

It is not unlike the rumbling of the earth or the crash of thunder, or perhaps a wave; something elemental and furious, fitting given the elemental division of the four tracks on the album.

Desmond's solo bass sections, meanwhile, approach something closer to the solitary strumming of a guitar or bass in a folk music setting; something old, something weary, and something lonesome.

The band is fixated with ghosts, it seems. From their name to the cover of their first record to the conceptual theme of this record, covering the eternal cyclical deaths of a man carried out by four ghosts representing death by each of the four elements, they return again and again to the figure of the ghost.

Inherent to their ghosts, and in fact to all ghosts, is the notion of haunting; that the past inflicts itself and bears itself upon the present and future unbidden; that we cannot be freed of the past.

Not only is this a doomy fixation, and a perversely funereal one, but it also reaches in to the deeper theme of both their work in general and this record in specific: that of grief.

This record approaches sonically what grief feels like emotionally. Dense, lumbering, aimless melodies, sweeping up and dropping down with little visible reason, aching and straining toward some meaning, some release, some distant catharsis, and failing, leaving the tension in the belly. Lush passages which, at a moment, wither away in an instant to drones.

Aural defeat from thwarted progressions failing to reach their desired ends but never failing to reach their singular destined end.

It is a bleak record compositionally, even beyond the timbre of the instruments and vocals. It leaves little to no catharsis; only tension, only weakness, alternating wailing and withering.

This is what grief is like. The body and spirit and psyche undergoing grief do not follow easy, pleasurable, "sexy" patterns. It is part of what makes undergoing grief and witnessing a loved one grieve so particularly painful.

The object of succor in grief is known and obvious, but impossible; only the return to life and being of the life lost can perfectly end the suffering of the aggrieved.

Instead, finding this solace impossible, the body heaves itself through a myriad of emotions, from anger at the world and god to despair and sense of personal doom to empty tears.

Acceptance seems to come less from working through grief, which never truly dissipates fully, but more a sense of psychic exhaustion, of winding the same cold pathways of the psyche and heart again and again, finding nothing, eventually tiring more of motion than relieved by found comfort.

These are ugly emotions, and difficult ones, both to feel and to face. Not all music is meant for them, nor should it be.

It is a wonderful and good thing that we have music in the world to address feeling of joy, of lust, of love, of all the positive passions and all of the other negative passions as well.

This genre, this approach to this genre, this band, this album in specific, all exist to explore something darker but no less real.

What Bell Witch does best is allow the full complexity of grief to emerge.

Not unlike Pallbearer, a doom band also on their second album, they know that grief is a complex and multifaceted object, containing like all things a multitude of identities and figures.

But unlike Pallbearer, who are proggy and far more interested on average in grabbing a listener with muscular riffs that inevitably turn to sorrow, Bell Witch wants to make clear the miasma of grief.

Bell Witch is patient, always patient. They let their music slow time as grief slows time, allows it to fixate and pace.

Pallbearer at time lets light in, allows their music to soar; they approach the multifaceted nature of grief partly by acknowledging the curious way in which the tides sometimes break.

Bell Witch never does. Theirs is a stormy grief, noxious, perpetually; the kind of thing you carry inside of you and allow to nag you with guilt when you feel perhaps you are too happy for what your loss demands.

These elements, which make this album so brilliant, are also what make it so emotionally demanding.

The songs transition seamlessly from one to another, both by melodies and timbre, creating a singular 60-minute piece.

It is demanding of emotional fortitude to allow oneself to sink below the tides of grief for that long, evoked so purely such as with this record.

Last year, Yob's similar record Clearing the Path to Ascend rightfully made it onto year-end lists of publications that don't typically feature extreme metal. The year before, a likewise emotionally bleak and painful record Sunbather from Deafheaven made similar waves.

If there is justice, this record will be acknowledged similarly.

It is a prime exemplar, along with Gorgut's recent record Coloured Sands, of the way the extreme ends of metal can begin to approach something more easily recognizable as contemporary classical music, albeit of a very dark sonic and emotional timbre.

However, as clearly great and well-executed and superbly emotive this record is, it is not easy to recommend to people. In that way, it remind's of Indian's album From All Purity, an album that is so effective in conjuring its violent heroin-damaged psychic rural darkness that it becomes difficult to return to, perhaps even dangerous. It is absolutely worth experiencing. Beyond that, the frequency of return visits can only be determined by ones willingness and ability to handle emotions such as these.

This is a sign of mastery; for a record of this style, the ability to be so terribly potent in its aim is a sign of tremendous success. Coping with the feelings art generates in us is our responsibility.

It needs only take us there, make us confront things we may forget or look away from, whether they be ugly and painful things such as here or beautiful and wondrous things likewise forgotten that other more positive music returns to us.

Four Phantoms does this, and does it superbly.