I have to be honest. Aside from my love for doom metal, the main reason I picked up this promo was that it is released by Profound Lore Records, which has become a by-word for quality in recent times. The list goes on and on. The prospect of a new funeral death doom release on this label had me all kinds of excited for crushing riffs, destructive power and abject desolation, especially considering the hype surrounding Bell Witch‘s 2012 début, Longing. Funeral doom is never an accessible genre so I’ve allowed an appropriate gestation period and given Four Phantoms a lot of time to settle. Has Profound Lore struck gold again?
My initial response was distressing disappointment. There was very little here to hold my attention, as much seemed lethargic and passionless. I suppose this could be an issue with the genre itself, though there has been funeral doom which immediately struck me (Ahab and Funeral for example). Four Phantoms doesn’t stray far from the genre’s defined limitations: thick chords resonate sequentially but leisurely, challenging the boundaries of what constitutes a melody; distant death growls act as more of an abstract instrument than a lyrical operator; the percussion draws these aspects together into a dirge. Bell Witch uses a lo-fi, fuzzy tone and production which absolutely suits the music, despite the meager dynamic range of 3. Across all this, on first listen there didn’t appear to be anything special here.
Nonetheless, I stuck with it. This type of music is not one to immediately hook in a listener with attractive melodies, and I could certainly appreciate the sheer power endemic to the genre. And as I did so, patterns began to emerge. Little subtleties which shot over my head the first time around, motifs which tie the long songs together.
The third track, “Suffocation, A Drowning…,” is superb given a few runs – granted, three listens of this song exceeds an hour, so take this with a pinch of salt. But I urge patience particularly on this song since it is now mounting a stern challenge to my top songs of 2015. The riff which opens is so simple but so evocative, and the clean vocals, almost a pained whisper, subtly contribute to this effect. When the lead-proper rears its head around the three minute mark, it develops the melody into heavier territory while maintaining its melancholy. Progressing further, the section from 6:00 until 10:00 is completely euphoric, demonstrating good dynamic awareness: peaks to complement the troughs highlight the emotions at both ends. The key musical idea from the beginning is never lost, even through the heaviest section in the third quarter, and the effective cleans at 16:00 remind me of Pallbearer‘s Foundations of Burden. Opener, “Suffocation, A Burial…,” is similar to this in its positive progressions, though resides in the realms of good rather than outstanding.
However, these positives must be qualified: this is only satisfactorily apparent on these two tracks. The other two which round out the album, “Judgement, In Fire…” and “Judgement, In Air…,” are both superfluous in comparison. The former is dull until a promising crescendo around the seven minute mark, though this inexplicably fades before climaxing. The latter is entirely redundant and should have been cut – this would have had the additional benefit of limiting Four Phantoms‘s excessive length. They are both too passive and don’t develop a head of steam, limiting themselves to filler around the longer main songs.
In short, this is a record of two halves. The “Suffocation” tracks are solid and awesome respectively, whereas the “Judgement” tracks are both expendable. Bell Witch does have serious talent – unlike on my first listen, I can now understand why Profound Lore signed them – but talent is not the same as consistency. Until their next release, I can fondly repeat “Suffocation, A Drowning…” and fawn over the artfully macabre album cover endlessly.