Despite my usual aversion to everything low and slow, something about Seattle’s Bell Witch speaks to me. 2015’s Four Phantoms, despite its long-winded tendencies, won many hearts (just not El Cuervo’s) with their well-crafted slab of monolithic funeral doom. Their super-massive soundscapes could suck the light out of the universe but rarely feel heavy just for heaviness’ sake. Following the sudden death of former drummer Adrian Guerra, bassist Dylan Desmond and drummer/organist Jesse Shreibman wrestled with shock and despair, as well as doubt over the future of Bell Witch. Their conclusion that “if [they] were going to go on, it had to be something remarkable” is evident throughout Mirror Reaper. Pulling off an 84-minute single track opus is about as remarkable as it gets.
Hypothetically, Bell Witch’s patented bass-only approach should burden their music with such a smothering atmosphere that nothing else can thrive. The ambiance the duo craft evokes thoughts of a cursed purgatory, an afterlife enthroned in darkness and possessed by unspeakable malice.1 Yet Bell Witch counterweight this miserable visage with moments of intense emotion. The track expands upon Four Phantoms’ propensity for long-running motifs. The early introduction of a simple yet poignant melody, imbued with Pallbearer‘s heartbreaking tenderness, breaks the inescapable ache, thriving amid the tension. Desmond returns to this riff – and others like it – repeatedly, binding this slow-moving hell together with their plaintive incandescence. The spaces in between find Bell Witch as meticulous as ever. Layers of chasm-deep bass fade to nearly imperceptible levels, before a chorus of ghastly howls and the second-perfect shimmer of Shreibman’s cymbals extend draw them out once more. The careful charting of caustic pits and lonely peaks; the placement of each heart-rending note, slotted in so perfectly after the last has faded; the methodical use of a tempo on the edge of too slow; Bell Witch treat their execution with as much grace and attention as their miasmatic atmosphere.
Four Phantoms, even on repeat listens, never resolved its length issue. Mirror Reaper leans into that shortcoming (longcoming?). Though masterpieces like Crimson and Winter’s Gate share one-run genealogy, those albums incorporate disparate ideas and approaches, sounding more-agile than their one-track status would suggest. For all its length, Mirror Reaper only truly sounds like two tracks. That’s not to say it doesn’t approach itself from multiple angles. The extensive examination of its innards is exactly what makes the record special. But as an 84-minute run, one largely sans tangible vocals save for cavernous rumbles and a nameless malice, the theming feels static. Mirror Reaper skirts the boundary of focused and narrow. Every instance of pain points in the same direction, a monument to the album’s implicit goal. However, coupled with the record’s titanic length and extensive, sobering development, Mirror Reaper is a difficult listen to get through in one sitting. At its best, the album can turn 15 minutes into 5; its lulls, meanwhile, stall as each second feels more indigestible than the last. Tightening the length even by 10-20 minutes would greatly increase the record’s appeal.
The departed Guerra shepherds in the album’s highest peak, the cataclysmic shift from the A-side’s “As Above” to B-side “So Below,” in the form of previously unused vocals from the Four Phantoms recordings. “So Below” feels every bit the endpoint that Mirror Reaper needs to complete its journey. Desmond, Shreibman, and returning guest vocalist Erik Moggridge (Aerial Ruin) distill their hearts into the delicate vocal incantations that haunt the passage. Mirror Reaper‘s final contortion, after over an hour of kaleidoscopic cycles, channels Moggridge’s transcendent, ethereal cleans into a pitch-perfect finale as gripping as any moment on the record. His inclusion on the record is Mirror Reaper‘s secret ingredient. For as masterful as the composition and instrumental performances are, Moggridge shines brightest. Producer Billy Anderson’s experience with Sleep, Acid King, and other doom outfits greatly benefits Mirror Reaper. His production emphasizes the poignant without sapping the band’s ability to crush chest cavities.
Mirror Reaper is not for the thriller seeker, nor is it for the faint of heart. At its core, it is paradoxically unyielding and gentle. Its length may listeners turn off, and for good reason. Fortunately, the execution of that material is largely beyond reproach. Bell Witch gambled with Mirror Reaper. On paper, an hour-plus of crushing plod should turn off all but the most devoted acolytes. Bell Witch defy expectations with a beautiful, haunting expression of sorrow and loss unlike any I’ve experienced. For those willing to invest the necessary time, Mirror Reaper will not disappoint.