Bell Witch is a massive act hailing from Seattle, Washington. These purveyors of funeral doom are well known for a morose and dejected style of music which is best described as a dirge. This description fits even better if you know the tragic history of the band itself. Bell Witch has historically always been a two-piece originally formed by Dylan Desmond (bass and vocals) and Adrian Guerra (drums and vocals), the latter who sadly passed away in 2016. Some unreleased vocals of his were featured on Bell Witch’s acclaimed release, the 90-minute single-track “Mirror Reaper” on the album of the same name. This further cemented the sorrow that is contained within their music although, I could not think of a more fitting tribute. Jesse Shriebman joined soon after Guerra’s passing in 2016 and has been with the band ever since. There is an addition to this release in the form of Erik Moggridge (Aerial Ruin) who is now fully integrated into the act. Although he was featured on the previous release, he forms a much bigger part of the whole this time around and I find it to be a suitable and welcome addition.
Now that you have the background let’s get to the music. Stygian Bough Volume 1 is a more evolved version of what we heard on Mirror Reaper and I am enamoured with what I hear. Where previously the band’s sound was mostly comprised of bass, drums, and screamed vocals, on this latest release we hear an abundance of electric and acoustic six-string guitar which is performed by Moggridge. Although I have always liked Bell Witch and their minimal, stripped-down instrumentation, these additions really elevate this album in more ways than one. The record feels to have more harmonic depth, texture, and dynamic range. The frequent use of clean vocals makes the music even sadder than before, if that were possible. In addition, I would say the release is more sombre than anything that came previously. The band forgoes some distorted riffs and death growls and opts for more clean vocals and acoustic passages instead. We are still treated to heavier parts from time to time, but they feel all the more impactful due to their scarcity.
This album is a huge vista of sound, the equivalent of a seaside cliff face, slowly being drenched by the rain. You scream but you cannot even hear your own voice as it is lost in the wind. You are beholden to the forces of nature. You feel alone, yet calm, at peace with what is to come.
From a musical standpoint, all of the songs feature acoustic guitar and clean singing often starting with these elements and building slowly to the heavy parts. There is also a drone-like quality to the record, which is not too uncommon for funeral doom and maybe I am just the right kind of depressed right now, but the music moves me in a way only funeral doom can.
This album features as much repetition as you would expect, looping riffs and sections that seem to extend on forever. I see my life flashing before me as the music imitates the unstoppable passage of time. It reminds me sometimes that we just need to give in and let the current take us. I would usually break down the tracks in more detail however that is not where the meat of this record lies, and it is all in the mood and the atmosphere. Of which this record oozes. It brings to mind every sad event that I’ve ever had to live through, yet at the same time gives me a sense of peace and tranquillity. Forgoing my usual track breakdowns, I will mention a few of my favourite parts of this release:
The 19-minute “The Bastard Wind” is a masterpiece in its entirety. From the woeful introduction to the riffs and lead guitar that would bring anyone to tears. The quality of the heavy sections is tumultuous and hopeless. This song itself is powerful and monstrous. The sustained organ we hear in the instrumental “Prelude” and “The Unbodied Air” helps to reinforce my dirge comparison, as well as the picked acoustic passages and electric guitar parts provided by Moggridge coupled with his vocals (I particularly love the dissonant notes he throws in from time to time in his solos and harmonies). This addition might have been the best move Bell Witch ever made in my opinion.
I think it’s great how the heaviest and most disgusting part of the whole album comes five minutes into the last, epic, 19-minute track “The Unbodied Air”. It is that exorcising relief we have all been waiting for. Just like that moment of realisation that life is finite, this part of the song hits you like a load of brick, breaking your spirit, making you give up. The subsequent return of the organ and clean guitar however serves to give us hope once more. Moggridge’s vocals sound on the brink of despair but still holding it together. Calling across the abyss, to remind us that things will all somehow all work out…
This album just gives me so many emotions that it is overwhelming. This is without a doubt my favourite Bell Witch release and I would recommend anyone who wants to feel the crushing weight of existence bear down on you while you greet it with a smile on your face.