Get to Know: Bell Witch (Review of Bell Witch Demo 2011)

Bell WitchBell Witch Demo 2011 (3 October 2011)

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I am forwarding this to you, because otherwise I would be responding to the message directly.

And I know if I did that, I would get into a lot of trouble.

That is a direct quote from an email I wrote to my boss today, passing along a rather impolite message I had received from someone in a different department. Without going into any specifics about the situation, I think that should give you enough of an idea about how MY day has been. How about you, Dear Reader? Are you in a better mood than yesterday? Have extra days off work or school on account of the holiday this weekend? Got all your presents bought and wrapped? Paid for all of them in cash, so there won’t be any huge credit card bills to look forward to, AND managed to pay all your regular bills this month, too?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, or if you answered “yes” or if you just said “fuck off, why are you asking me so many questions” — in any case, I suspect that you could benefit from some more holiday cheer. And I don’t mean a bottle of wine (although I’m sure that couldn’t hurt, either!). No, just like I said in yesterday’s post, the best way to brighten your day, even if it’s just for a little while, is a healthy serving of some nice, bleak DOOOOOM. As I promised yesterday, I’ve got one batch coming your way today, and then another to follow tomorrow.

Our journey of discovery now takes us to the northwestern United States; specifically, to the city of Seattle, which was made famous in the 1990s as it is commonly regarded as the birthplace of the grunge movement. However, what we are seeking is something much deeper, much darker, and a whole lot slower — and we find exactly that on the recent demo recording by Seattleite duo Bell Witch, which is cleverly titled Bell Witch Demo 2011.

This group manages to produce an enormous sound, with a wide range of dynamics and a ton of emotion, despite the fact that it consists of only bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond and drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra.  That’s right, not a guitar or keyboard in sight, but you’ll be surprised how much you don’t miss either one.

Their recently released demo includes a total of four songs, but with a total running time approaching nearly forty minutes, it would easily occupy both sides of an LP record.  The release also seems structured more like an actual album than a demo recording, as one might normally expect a demo to simply be a collection of songs the band has put to tape; the Bell Witch demo, on the other hand, has a unifying mood across its tracks, and features two rather lengthy (ranging from eleven to eighteen minutes) pieces bookended by two relatively brief (each under four minutes) sketches as an intro and outro.

Although the band– and hence their self-titled demo– is named after a famous American ghost story, (in fact, a story which has had its fair share of movies based upon it), opening track “Beneath the Mask” samples lines of dialogue from the classic Vincent Price film “Masque of the Red Death” (which is instead based, of course, on Poe’s short story by the same title).  These lines are superimposed over soft layers of mellowness; simple atmospherics, delivered via bass chords and some occasional higher melodic notes.  Overall, a very minimal, dreamy effect is achieved, using the bass and nothing more, beneath the movie quotes.

Next, “I Wait” kicks in, with a fuzzy, dirgey vibe in the riff.  Tonally it could be a Rainbow song, but slowed to the crawling pace of Black Sabbath‘s seminal “Black Sabbath.”  Again building on merely drums and bass (the latter supplying chords, riffs, and leads), the band’s sound uses enough chorusing, equalization, and layering of instrumental tracks to make it much fuller, resembling a full band with bass plus guitar(s).  In fact, many of the tones Dylan achieves approximate the sound of a guitar amp with the bass knob turned way up, and perhaps a huge speaker cabinet– not unlike the guitar tone used in a lot of fuzz/stoner metal.  But, performed on bass, each note has just that much more weight.

After a short while of the thick, fuzzy riffs, the dynamics suddenly drop to a much more stripped-down riff (again seeming to take cues from a song like “Black Sabbath,” just before the vocals enter).  About two minutes into the song, we do get treated to some vocalization– for a little while, anyway.  These alternate between wicked, blackened shrieks and huge, demonic roars.  Once the vocals cut away, the tempo actually decreases even more, and the structure becomes even more minimal.

After a few more minutes, some different vocals enter (slowly, quietly).  Here, we have a sort of deep, meditative chanting.  Over the next couple of minutes, both the music and vocals increase in intensity (albeit a very, very slow increase), becoming more melodically complex, as well as adding additional backing vocals (these being primarily evil-sounding snarls), continuing to build through the end of the song.

“Mayknow” is the third, and longest, track on this demo.  It starts out by punching the listener with huge, ponderous, monolithic, molasses-slow, chunky bass chords.  I’m sorry for the overload of adjectives, but anything this heavy could not be described in just a couple words.  Anyway, following a pattern similar to the opening of the previous track, these drop away completely, leaving just some light, mellow tones with a bit of tinkling on the cymbals.  Here we enjoy a bit of plaintive vocalization; again, sort of chant-like, or hymny perhaps, although this time in a higher register (much like an operatic tenor).  In any case, this type of singing would definitely not sound out of place in a church; very lovely.

Then, once again, the tempo drops even further and the arrangement becomes even more minimal than before.  All that remains are occasional snare or cymbal hits above sustained bass-notes that at times resemble the lower register of a hammond organ, perhaps, with some harmonic lead notes above it all.  The overall structure of this monumental composition, with its build-ups and its minimal instrumental interludes, seems inspired by something like “A Saucerful of Secrets,” if the early Pink Floyd had traded its psychedelia for gloom and doom.

This then gives way to more of the type of distorty chunkiness from the beginning, but now with vocals that are so deep, they could have come out of the granite throat of an enormous gargoyle or golem.  The band also throws in a bluesy guitar solo (on bass, of course), complete with plenty of string slides and bends.  Continuing on with slow, slow riffs and chords, they eventually reintroduce the lovely hymny singing from earlier in the track, although now it is doubled (or even trebled?) at times.

Finally, that track is followed by “The Moment,” the shortest song here.  Strikingly similar to the opener, this is more bass-only mellowness, although this time around there are no words (sampled or otherwise) to obscure the beautiful simplicity of the notes.  Reminiscent of a melodic acoustic guitar outro, this piece again demonstrates the versatility of the instrument in this context.

If you’ve enjoyed the tracks in the players above, you should consider visiting the Bell Witch Bandcamp site where you can grab the full download.

Also, be sure to keep an eye on their Facebook page and/or their Blogspot, because there are big plans for the upcoming year, including a February tour of the American west coast, as well as a pressing of this demo on vinyl (due to be released by Psychic Assault)!  Drummer Adrian also informs me that there’s been discussion of a new full-length release sometime in 2012, and lots more touring during the year, so Bell Witch is clearly a band you can expect to hear much more about in the future…

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