Bassist and vocalist Dylan Desmond has been the enduring force behind Seattle's exceptional funeral doom outfit BELL WITCH. The act has been a duo at its core, and originally included founding member Adrian Guerra, who sadly passed away in 2016, prior to his replacement and current vocalist/drummer Jesse Shreibman being named and performing on 2017's riveting "Mirror Reaper". Guerra's tragic passing lends to the authenticity and power of BELL WITCH's inclination toward the concept of purgatory, the realm of atonement between life and death. This energy is almost tangible on their latest offering, "Stygian Bough Volume I", a collaborative effort with the dark folk project AERIAL RUIN. The resulting artistic output is captivating, to say the least. "Stygian Bough Volume I" is a juggernaut of mournful, epic doom that's just as beautiful as it is harrowing.
AERIAL RUIN is essentially Erik Moggridge's solo project, a musician who is no stranger to BELL WITCH. Moggridge's contributions have been sprinkled across BELL WITCH's catalogue, and he has regularly performed with the duo. While the initial intention a couple of years ago was for a split record which would have showcased BELL WITCH and AERIAL RUIN covering specific songs from each other's catalog, what actually came to fruition was a collaboration in the truest sense — a synthesis of the creative minds and musicians mixed within the same cauldron. Even thematically, AERIAL RUIN's focal point of the loss of the self and the associated spiritual journey goes hand in hand with BELL WITCH's approach.
Together, the two acts merge forces on "Stygian Bough Volume I" to conceptually tackle a story pulled from "The Golden Bough", a book written by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer that was published in 1890. A tale unravels depicting a slave arising to slay and replace the land's king, followed by the dark twist that the newly crowned king must accept that his fate will be that of his predecessor. "In short, the golden bough made a king out of a slave only to find they were now enslaved to a different sort of tyranny, always stalking them from the darkest shadows of their imagination. From this perspective, the 'golden bough' is better understood as a deception casting darkness. Thus, Stygian Bough," Desmond states via a press release. The themes of enslavement and tyranny are eternal and inevitable regardless of who comes to power, a constant within the human condition that many would be wise to consider during the current state of global turmoil.
Moggridge's guitar work augments BELL WITCH's essence without spoiling its inherent minimalistic charm. BELL WITCH's prior output doesn't feel awkwardly spacious by any means, but the added guitars certainly flesh out and even stand at the forefront of the underlying rhythmic foundation, which is occasionally adorned by organs, on songs like "Heaven Torn Low I (the passage)" , a soothing, acoustic slow burn that leads into the amplified, juiced up follow-up, "Heaven Torn Low II (the toll)" . On the flip side, the album's bookended opening and concluding tracks — "The Bastard Wind" and "The Unbodied Air", respectively — find BELL WITCH moving to the center stage, so to speak. The thunderous bass and drum-driven doom collides and crashes with the subtlety of the Earth's tectonic plates crashing together, especially on "The Bastard Wind", a track adorned with ethereal church-like vocals and organ parts.
Simply put, "Stygian Bough Volume I" is a hell of an album. It's a contender for doom metal album of the year. If the fact that the title "Volume I" wasn't suggestive enough that there will be more to follow from the BELL WITCH and AERIAL RUIN collaboration, the musicians have explicitly stated that we should be expecting exactly that. This should be good news for many fans of fearless, forward-thinking heavy music.