A good piece of music can strike you right in the center of your being. The reverberation of sound can resonate with the molecules deep inside of you, and make you feel complete, in a way.
The things that stick with us, the songs that stay with us forever, are the things that cause that kind of resonance. They also incite a kind of wistfulness, for when you find something out there that coincides with your internal resonance, it puts the world into a sharp focus that is unforgettable. To hear it again, later, is to resonate in that same way once again. (It is this that caused the wise Boris Grebenshikov to once remark, "We all remember best the music we heard when we were 17"!)
I say this because the music on Mirror Reaper resonates with me. When i first heard this music, around 9:30 PM or so on Wednesday 20 June 2018, the band's performance swelled to fill the entire world. For a brief moment (well, 40 minutes, but when you are in one of those moments time is eternal and all too brief at the same time) this music drowned out everything: the constant flow of chatter in my brain, the other people in the club, money worries, everything.
Since then i have spent rather a lot of time with Mirror Reaper. Yes, technically Bell Witch are a "heavy metal band", whatever that means, but i think that Mirror Reaper is sonically similar to Low, or Godspeed You Black Emperor, or Codeine, with, yes, a little My War and some Sabbath and some Saint Vitus thrown in. There is also, in a way, a sonic similarity to Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2 in that this music is sparse and creates a mood more than it describes movement.
But "funeral doom metal", which is the phrase that is applied to what Bell Witch do, is ambient music. This is music that is precise, the individual notes lingering and the pace meandering. I like the unhurried nature of this kind of music, and sure, this band features some growled vocals, but really what Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman are doing here is not that far from the work of Alan and Mimi Sparhawk, or even Windy and Carl in a way.
It is very different as well: Shreibman does that "metal growl" thing at times, and even though i do not have every album Low have released to date, i am pretty sure that neither Mimi nor Alan ever did a "metal growl" on one of their songs...
And that "metal growl vocal" is a gate-keeper thing. It is a dividing line, keeping some people out (such as my girlfriend, who cannot stand that kind of vocal at all) while letting others in. Normally i fall on the outside of that sort of vocal (see my ranting review of Hundred Year Old Man for more on that) but the specific application here is something that i find adds to the overall effect of the music.
As to the music, well, there are seven elements. First of all, Shreibman growls. Occasionally. And slowl. His tortured voice a long drawn out rumble alongside the other elements.
Shreibman also plays drums, and in that i mean he hits drums and cymbals. At times. Times that are often spaced out quite a bit. The album does not feature a drum solo like something John Bonham would have done, and at the same time Shreibman does add a sparse percussive propulsion to the song.
The other band member, Dylan Desmond, plays bass. A 6-string bass as i saw in concert, and he plays melodically, the thick notes often reverberating alone for seconds at a time.
Desmond also sings. Or, rather, he chants lightly in a way that reminded me of Catholic Priests chanting liturgy. I don't think he is chanting in Latin here, but often the words escape my conscious comprehension, drawn out at they are.
There is a faint organ drone, also courtesy of Shreibman.
Shortly before recording this record, original drummer Adrian Guerra retired from music. He had some health issues, and died of heart issues when the rest of the band was recording Mirror Reaper. His tragic death infuses this slow music with a very personal sense of melancholy. So Desmond and Shreibman found an older, unused Guerra vocal that had been discarded from a previous record, and it is layered in towards the middle. It seems very tragic, and yet also very metal to have your dead drummer sing on your record.
And finally the band have brought in an old friend, Erik Moggridge, who has added vocals to Bell Witch releases before. His voice is slightly nasally and rather melancholy, which fits with the slow meandering tune.
And that's it: 4 different voices all used very differently, plus bass, drums, and organ. That's it. And the band manages to fill 83 minutes and 15 seconds with just those sounds, and to keep me interested over repeated listens.
Normally at this point in the review i would go over the songs, talking about tone and lyrical tropes while providing valuable reference points to future listeners. But Mirror Reaper is one song, so i suppose that i am referring to movements in the overall structure of the song.
I bought it on vinyl, which breaks the song up into four roughly twenty minute pieces. The vinyl came with a download, which presents the song as one continuous track. Both are worthwhile. When i listen to the vinyl, at home, i usually pause for a while between the sides. This is pretty intense listening, and after a side of the record has faded out i enjoy sitting with the rest of the sounds of my home for a while, in contrast. But let's just go through this thing straight through, 83:15, all at once.
Mirror Reaper the song starts slowly, Desmond's bass melodic and echoing, long notes shaping the empty space that envelops the song. The song is mostly void, mostly emptiness. But all songs are, in a way. Music is just a scream to fill the emptiness for a brief time period, and here it starts with a long, echoing bass piece, minimal and lovely.
After almost three minutes of this echoing, the drums hit and the overdrive turns on and Bell Witch make noise, a loud noise. Shreibman scatters slow drum hits and ponderous cymbal crashes among the bass. This is intense head banging in slow motion.
At 6:44 Shreibman growls, a low guttural "vocal" that is so low and drawn out that it is really another instrument, hanging in space with the drum hits, the bass melody, the keyboardy drone. This is the first voice in this entire song, and there is nothing to comprehend here, just a deep rumble, slow and scratchy and echoing. Nothing about this growl makes me think that it is comprehensible or that i should concentrate on it in an attempt to derive meaning. The meaning of the song comes from the combination of sounds, their echo, their ultimate loneliness and futility, and not from something as blandly denotative as "lyrics".
At ten minutes, the growl is gone and Desmond starts chanting, the odd drawn out singing that i remember from attending mass as a child. To me this is the sound of ritual, of people trying to force meaning onto the world.
At about fifteen minutes the distortion on the bass changes and the song becomes insistent, like it is rapidly building to something, the fury in those thundering drums and rumbling bass ready to be unleashed... So at 15:33, the song pauses. It is as if the rapid build just died, and it goes back to the beginning with a sparse bass melody reverbing in emptiness.
For some reason, that pause always seems so full of significance. The band had worked so hard to get there, to build a slow drone up to the point of frenzy, and then suddenly dissolve it, let the tension just dissipate. The sudden return to silence is all the more startling.
The bass picks away, slowly, for a long time, and at just before 25 minutes the chanting is back, the song even sparser with minimal bass echoes and rolling cymbal crashes. The chanting seems to be in layers, or maybe the two are harmonizing. With the sparse instrumentation, this sounds like a somber ancient moment, the sound of the funeral for Charlemagne, or the mournful accompaniment of monks at the Inquisition.
Just before 32 minutes the drums are going, the bass grinding, the voice chanting, and the growl is there. The growl, here, is apparently not Shreibman, but is instead the growl is Guerra. Keyboards come in, the drone of deep space, a whooshing emptiness. This part of the song is beautiful, and haunting, and also perhaps the most conventional part of the song.
The song gets even sparser around 49 minutes, everything parting for a slow picked bass bit that tinkles along until Moggridge comes in, his voice high, nasal, clear. He also sounds tinged with melancholy, his voice singing of heavy sadness over very sparse music.
At 57 minutes the organ drone starts back up, the drums thud in slowly, and Moggridge aahs as the bass ticks slowly. This part of the song is simply beautiful. Three minutes in (which is about an hour into the song) the organ drone has become a faint haze and Moggridge's voice is layered, like he is singing counterpoint to himself.
And everything kind of slowly fades out. At about 69 minutes, the song is just layers of organ sliding against one another, layers and layers of low drone. It is mournful, and seems very Catholic to me.
So of course, shortly thereafter, the band jumps back into it with overdriven bass, Shriebman pounding his drum kit, and Moggridge singing less mournfully and more forcefully.
Then the last 6 minutes or so of this very long song are a slow fade out, the song slowly becoming more minimal, until it is just gone... It takes 83 minutes and 15 seconds to listen to it straight through, a little longer on vinyl when you have to get up to flip the record over.
Mirror Reaper is a marathon. It requires a lot of commitment on the part of the listener. Of course, if you have it on vinyl you can just listen to a part of it at a time. (Side's B and C are personal favorites.)
Mirror Reaper is also rather cathartic. After listening to this record, when it finally fades out, i feel an overwhelming sense of calm. It is as if the song is a storm, ebbing and flowing, and when it is over it leaves behind calmness, and clarity.
So don't be fooled into thinking that this is just heavy metal: it is metal and ambient and slowcore, all at the same time. I have never heard anything exactly like this. It reverberates deep within me, and for that, i thank Bell Witch profusely. Your mileage may vary of course, but there is really something special going on here.