Bell Witch – Four Phantoms (Profound Lore Records, 28 April 2015)
For those who may have missed the news, I’m very sad to report that yesterday we learned of a monumental loss to the music world, in the passing of Adrian Guerra, co-founder of Seattle doom duo Bell Witch, co-writer of all of that band’s material to date, and former drummer/vocalist (up through summer 2015).
After that time, his position behind the kit had been replaced by Jesse Shreibman, including on the band’s most recent tour where they pulled double duty — playing a full set of their own in addition to serving as the backing band for Wrekmeister Harmonies. But from the band’s inception through its formative years, it was Guerra and bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond from their groundbreaking 2011 demo (incidentally, one of the very first reviews ever published on this website, back in December of that year) up through and including last year’s Profound Lore full-length Four Phantoms.
In honor and in memory of the co-creator of some of the greatest and most moving music to have reached my ears over the past five years, today I’ve decided to present you with a discussion about that latest album, the last one to feature the original Bell Witch line-up. Rest in peace Adrian, and our thoughts and sympathy are with your friends and family, colleagues and former band members.
Released just over a year ago, the band’s second full-length contains a total of two songs, running a little more than sixty-six minutes altogether. Each song is divided into two parts, and they are staggered across the sides of two LPs: “Suffocation” makes up the first and third (each nearly twenty-three minutes long), subtitled “A Burial: I – Awoken (Breathing Teeth)” and “A Drowning: II – Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever)” respectively; “Judgement” fills in the second and fourth (over ten minutes each), “In Fire: I – Garden (Of Blooming Ash)” and “In Air: II – Felled (In Howling Wind).”
It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has ever listened to Bell Witch, but the album starts with a series of mellifluous sustained bass chords, shimmering with all sorts of harmonics and overtones. Of course, just about a minute later everything comes crashing down with overwhelming amounts of distortion, and heavy but extremely sparse drum hits. Over the course of the next hour, we hit all of the major points we’ve come to expect from these guys: super deep and powerfully roared vocals for a while, and then they seamlessly switch over to gorgeous and echoey tones that resonate like monks chanting; rather somniferous progressions, with huge crashes of cymbals punctuating slowly-rolling bass motifs; occasionally some painfully screamed and shrieked vocals in the background; and then just as unexpectedly turning mellow and morose once more.
Both parts of “Suffocation” end up reiterating a particular soaring, grandiose melody several times, after going through numerous twists and turns and wandering astray, this main theme will return again and tie it all together. The first part (“A Burial”) ultimately breaks down near the end, featuring some hauntingly lovely vocals ringing out over a chaotic, crushing noise; while the second part (“A Drowning”) opens with stark and plaintive singing (not full of reverb like much of the other material here), about halfway there is a blend of a few disharmoniously juxtaposed vocal parts, leading into a section where screamed, growled, and rasped parts each cut through the mix. A little later, huge bass notes that vibrate like the low end of a pipe organ are paired with some higher-pitched choir-like singing, and then after revisiting the main theme once more, we’re treated to another dose of the higher-pitched angelic singing, and finally it ends as it started: with a few minutes of mellow solo bass.
The other sides of the album, the two halves of “Judgement,” seem a bit more menacing and threatening at times — “unsettling” is perhaps the most appropriate word to use here. “In Fire” introduces a synthy lead part and some more ultra-deep roars and howls, but the bulk of this track sees a bunch of cymbal rolls (that conjure images of far-off waves rolling and crashing into the shore) punctuating a slowly driving bassline. On the other hand, the final piece “In Air” makes use of a bunch of noise and feedback, crashes and distortion; growled vocals that sound echoed in a ghastly, ghostly way; the song and the album end with a wash of sustained feedback notes. Whether the title Four Phantoms refers to actual supernatural beings (like the one from which the band takes its name) or whether it was intended in more of a metaphorical sense, like more of an internal bête noire with which one must contend, either way the overall sound of the album — and the various iterations and contortions the band undergoes throughout its course — seems like a perfect representation of that struggle.
Four Phantoms is available to purchase right here.
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