Bell Witch: Mirror Reaper

Photo: David Choe

Bell Witch moves the listener with a deathly journey that is often poetic and at times philosophically rich.

Few things focus the mind on eternity like a doom metal album of epic-length songs about damned souls. That's merely one way of describing Four Phantoms, Bell Witch's 2015 album that stands as one of the most expressive heavy albums in recent memory. A month before Four Phantoms was released, Islander at No Clean Singing wrote that the album was "sublime" and "exalted" but "also crushing" in its heaviness.

Bell Witch

Mirror Reaper

Label: Profound Lore
US Release Date: 2017-10-20
UK Release Date: 2017-10-20

That is a combination of adjectives few, if any, albums could hope to live up to; especially an album involving only drums, bass guitar, and vocals. Yet Four Phantoms delivered on that promise and is also one of those rare albums whose emotional, physical, journey never diminishes in intensity from recurring listens. There is no stilling the maelstrom or quenching the flames. The cycle of Four Phantoms is an eternal caution.

New album Mirror Reaper could be seen as an attempt by Bell Witch to create a work more colossal than Four Phantoms. The tone of the album is much the same, as are the instruments present (bass, vocals, and percussion, with an added Hammond B3 organ). But the structure of the album is different. Mirror Reaper is a single 83-minute song. An uncompromising choice like this isn't unprecedented in metal -- Boris and Sleep have memorably passed the hour mark with single songs, and just last year Gorguts released the single-track Pleiades' Dust, though that EP was comparatively short at just more than half an hour.

The conceptual weight of Mirror Reaper is also heavier. The portraits of suffering on Four Phantoms were effective on their own terms. No promotional context was required. Mirror Reaper, however, comes with an explanation by the band that the title “is indicative of the Hermetic axiom 'As Above, So Below,' written with two sides to form one whole. The song is both its own and its reflection, as an opposite is whole only with its contrary. Our focus as a band has always been the perception of ghosts and the implied archetype of the dichotomy of life/death therein."

As a mystical or a New Age concept, "As Above, So Below" has popped up from time to time in association with rock bands, perhaps most explicitly with Ebbot Lundberg, who literally wore the phrase on his sleeve during his years as the frontman of the Soundtrack of our Lives. Mirror imagery is even more common in metal, and an album title like Mirror Reaper evokes bands like Mercyful Fate (“Mirror") and King Diamond (“Mirror Mirror") and Grim Reaper, all of whose music and mission, song titles aside, seem to have little in common with Bell Witch. So far in 2017, the most effective mirror reference in hard rock/metal is an elliptical one: Mastodon's “I wonder who I am / Reflections offer nothing" from “Steambreather."

But all of these associations aren't the point. Mirror Reaper very nearly reaches the heights/depths of Four Phantoms. One of the most exceptional qualities of Bell Witch is, despite the many aching ways they find to describe death's sting, the band does not appear to intend to drag listeners down to the grave. That is a significant distinction, as a number of critically and commercially successful heavy metal bands are currently pushing deeper into Nihilism and Satanism.

Bell Witch, by contrast, moves the listener with a deathly journey that is often poetic and at times philosophically rich. One lyrical passage, “I'm bound to Waves / The waves of no shore" resonates with Mount Eerie's “Swims" from 2017's A Crow Looked at Me. And like that album, Mirror Reaper involves a real death, in this case, the death of former drummer Adrian Guerra, whose “Words of the Dead" section of Mirror Reaper is one of the album's many effective transitions between movements. Every few minutes of Mirror Reaper, new layers appear. Sometimes these are subtle instrumental/vocal textures becoming apparent, and other times, shifts of melody or dynamics that profoundly reorient the song.

Throughout Mirror Reaper, it is clear that the songwriters, musicians, and producer/engineer Billy Anderson have treated what might have become an excessive single song with the sort of precision that justifies the entire project. The concluding impression, through repeated listens, is that Mirror Reaper is appropriately scaled to its subject and stakes. This is another Bell Witch album about life and (mostly) death and eternity. Implicitly, the record poses the question: If this hour-plus feels long, what must forever feel like?

Contemplating eternity in this way can also point above from below, as appears in the apocryphal story of Stanley Kubrick seeing ghosts as an optimistic presence, as evidence of existence after death. Mirror Reaper isn't so sanguine, but its visions of time fleeting and freezing brace us for the reality of the state from which no traveler returns.

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