Bell Witch/Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough Volume I Review

We discuss the concepts of identity and iteration often. Following modern funeral doom’s most well-known album, Bell Witch owned an unimpeachable identity. However, plodding guitarless funeral doom doesn’t exactly lend itself to iteration. That’s why Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman’s decision to make official their partnership with Erik Moggridge, the man in Aerial Ruin’s one-man dark folk band, made sense. Moggridge’s guest vocals on Mirror Reaper conveyed grief and loss on a frequency that Bell Witch couldn’t have reached alone. Stygian Bough Volume I pries those mournful dimensions wide in a symbiotic give-and-take quite unlike anything either act has produced before.

Anyone familiar with Aerial Ruin’s work, particularly his split with Panopticon, will not be surprised at the acoustic hauntings of Stygian Bough. The record is riddled, if not tightly packed, with throughlines that would thrive on any Bell Witch album. The opening passage of “The Bastard Wind” presents itself with such timorous forgiveness that when Bell Witch’s presence finally shatters the scene, cruel and inevitable, the effect is shocking. The emanating quiet drapes you in the melancholia looming above the grave, deceiving you before the eventual plummet six feet under. This dichotomy allows “The Bastard Wind” to transform the best of each act—the head of Bell Witch and the legs of Aerial Ruin—into long, meticulously patterned movements filtered through a medium often untread. The bass-fueled release at the song’s midpoint sounds as driven and mesmerizing as any material in the Bell Witch catalog. Increased range of tempo and timbre allows for clarity of intent that counteracts the time dilation of previous entries. It’s the best of the collaboration, 20 minutes that—believe it or not—flies by.

The bands have pointed at Ulver and Candlemass as inspirations. However, Bough’s best moments strike differently, creating a barren world with no more tears to shed, bringing rawer, if less comparable material like Altars of Grief and Woods of Ypres to mind. Even Low Roar, with their pregnant ambiance that belies so much under the waves, feels apt. Follow-ups “Heaven Torn Low I (The Passage)” and “Heaven Torn Low II (The Toll)” creatively play into this as two sides of the same token. The former, entirely acoustic, leans heavily on Moggridge’s hollowing voice, while the latter reimagines the track on Bell Witch’s side of the mirror. This back-and-forth experimentation feels natural on a collab, but given prior pinnacles, the offerings don’t completely meet expectations. “Torn Low I” gives away Aerial Ruin’s dynamism, its most important quality, as it spends 13 minutes looping the same riff. Surprisingly, the eight-minute black hole “Torn Low II” sounds the more sweeping of the two, especially when Moggridge’s cleans return. “Prelude” illustrates the same—poignant, beautiful, but ultimately stationary and wanting in a format that should offer more. It’s in these places that Stygian Bough falls short. Epoch-spanning runtimes lead to the same drawn-out development as “The Bastard Wind,” but without the weight and contrast behind it, what was once methodical feels monotonous.

The 20 minutes of bookending closer “The Unbodied Air” tends that same grave above which Bell Witch forever stands vigil. With a sinister, mountainous first-half yin matching the ethereal yang that fleets into the second half, the track recalls elements of “The Bastard Wind” but spins its wheels for too long on passages that work only half as well as you should like. Perhaps the classic Bell Witch approach fits oblong into the ethos of this collab; perhaps “Air” just isn’t compelling. Either way, my enthusiasm for the closer in relation to even the “Torn Low” tandem is less than half of what it deserves. As Aerial Ruin can’t easily spin yarns out of hand, so too must Bell Witch work all the more to survive in a suddenly vast landscape offering more than the acrid and bitter.

My over-saccharine preferences rarely lean toward the saddest, thickest albums in my collection. But with Stygian Bough, I’m reminded of the entrancing benefits that are so difficult to replicate in other venues. As such, the whole of Stygian Bough is worth recommending, despite the cracks in the monolith. It’s the lived growing pains of two great acts sorting out how best to co-exist, but when the duo is on, they’re on. The fully-functioning collaboration between Aerial Ruin and Bell Witch is a looking glass into the next evolution of an all-star sound already pushing boundaries. The rest comes with time and experience and, yes, suffering, but the inevitability of artists of this caliber cannot be denied. The riff demands it.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Profound Lore Records
Websites: | | |
Releases Worldwide: June 26th, 2020

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