Bell Witch, Longing: If They Would Beach You

After a well-received 2011 demo, Seattle bass/drum duo Bell Witch make their full-length debut via Profound Lore with the 67-minute Longing, an album as much about atmospheric weight as catastrophic low end. Bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond some will recognize as a founding member of Samothrace, whose 2012 LP Reverence to Stone (review here) was thrillingly heavy, or perhaps the underrated Lethe instrumental outfit, who released their only album to date in the form of 2009’s Mnemosyne (review here). In Bell Witch, Desmond is joined on drums and vocals by Adrian Guerra, and the pair manage to move with striking fluidity between sections that sound full and gut-twistingly heavy and sparse, ambient minimalist parts that seem to stretch sonically even farther than the runtimes of the songs themselves. No easy feat, that. Longing opens with its longest track (immediate points), the 20-minute “Bails (of Flesh),” but even so, three of the other five on the album top 12 minutes. But for the opener, nothing stretches past the 18 minutes of “Mayknow” from the demo (review here), but neither “Rows (of Endless Waves)” (13:02), nor “Longing (The River of Ash)” (12:06) are lacking for sprawl, and at 5:54, “Beneath the Mask” is essentially a filled-out version of what served as the demo intro, that track and the following “I Wait” (12:25) having also appeared there, and closer “Outro” follows with 3:27 more of atmospheric soundscaping. Perhaps the most notable point of growth between the demo and Longing lies in the vocals, which Desmond and Guerra execute in contrasts of extreme funeral doom growls and sad clean singing that adds mournful melodies to the band’s carefully constructed lumber, and particularly in the case of the late-track apex of “Rows (of Endless Waves)” sets Bell Witch on a course of emotional resonance similar to that which has brought the likes of 40 Watt Sun and Pallbearer (more closely related to the former, sonically speaking) such success over the last couple years. That’s not to say Bell Witch are aiming at the same kind of appeal – that’s really just a part of what they do – but their doom is modern in the sense of not feeling a need to cloak its sadness or titular longing in anything other than tonal thickness or impossibly slow tempos.

Being a duo works to Bell Witch’s advantage. At no point in the album does there seem to be a lack of presence where one isn’t intended. Longing, like Samothrace’s Reverence to Stone, was recorded by Brandon Fitzsimons, and Desmond’s tone remains consistent through these songs as it was on that record – rich and encompassing. But though “Bails (of Flesh)” opens quietly with an underlying rumble, at no point does there seem to be anything missing, most especially guitar, which if you asked me, I’d swear the first track has. Overtop of the grueling plod, there’s a solo, and it could be Desmond running his bass through an effects loop and layering in the recording, or it could be someone picked up a guitar, I suppose anything’s possible. In any case, Guerra does an excellent job holding the slower pace together as he does throughout the whole of the album, and when the vocals kick in just past the five-minute mark on the CD, they roar. I mean it. The growl is forward in the mix without wholly dominating it, but it is animalistic and terrifyingly well done. There are some who decry abrasive vocals outright – I’m not one of them. With a record like Longing, how it’s said counts almost as much as what’s being said, and lyrics like, “Hate for will/My grief will be avenged” are all the more foreboding for the indecipherable brutality of their presentation. Instrumentally, on the first track it’s the drawn out lead lines that carry across the emotionality until a midsection break touches on some clean vocals – not quite to the same level as “Rows (of Endless Waves),” but along the same lines – before the massive lumber resumes at 15:28 and the song begins its long march into oblivion, the growls returning to lead the way out and into the beginning of “Rows (of Endless Waves)” which is bombastic in comparison, a barrage of drums from Guerra meeting with the bass riffing and vicious screams and growls. For the first minute or so, it is unbearably heavy, but gradually, the song emerges, and by the time three minutes have passed, Bell Witch have gracefully shifted into minimalist pastoralia, beginning the build that will encompass the remaining 10 minutes of the track.

Verses endure and come and go as the music creeps patiently upward in volume, chanting ensues in the middle third with what sounds like a ringing bell behind, and about eight minutes in, the screams and chaos resumes. One might think that’s the apex, as heavy as it gets, but the song holds back its full breadth for the movement that follows, the tempo speeding up somewhat as the lyrical couplets “If they would beach you these waves of destruction/Would only collapse you and leave you to lie/On peasant-tread landing where you’d have a hand in/The death of a million for only a lie,” begin a section of Irish folk cadence (and accent a bit as well) so insistently delivered as to sound defiant against who knows what, melodically gorgeous and the highlight of Longing as a whole. The vocals embark on a build to match that of the music, or perhaps carry it, and the last few minutes of “Rows (of Endless Waves)” aren’t so much about cacophony as emotional payoff, desperate in their righteousness. The title-track, “Longing (The River of Ash),” has a hell of a task in following it, and it seems as though Bell Witch realized that in their sequencing. Where the opener took its time in establishing its rumble and second cut launched headfirst, track three of the six finds a middle ground between doomed plod and melancholic moodiness, developing a sense of defeat as each new crash seems to convey another letdown. When they come in, the vocals are clean exclusively and remain that way for the song’s 12-minute duration, and the extremity here isn’t so much about aural bludgeoning as about a test of emotional mettle. As flashes and bursts of thicker tonality remind of the dynamic sensibility at work in Guerra and Desmond’s songwriting, “Longing (The River of Ash)” never hits the same kind of thrust as did “Rows (of Endless Waves),” and that’s clearly on purpose, the duo focusing on how the songs serve the album as a whole rather than how each stands on its own. It’s easy to see the CD in two groupings – the first three tracks, which encompass over 45 minutes, and the last three, which finish out the remaining 22 – but really, it’s the title-track that marks the change, not the song after it, since by the time it’s done, the atmosphere has grown even more depressive than it was to start out. And it was plenty depressive to start out, so that’s really saying something.

Still, “Beneath the Mask” its longer incarnation remains poignant emotionally. There are no drums and the only vocals come courtesy of a sample of the highly recognizable voice of Vincent Price as it was in 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death (the film based on the short story by Edgar Allen Poe), but still, “Beneath the Mask” has more substance atmospherically and in terms of its runtime than calling it an interlude could possibly convey. Desmond’s bass is slow and bare, but not without a sense of melody driving it, and as on the demo, “Beneath the Mask” transitions well into the revived lumber of “I Wait,” lulling the listener to near-unconsciousness before Guerra returns on drums, the distortion kicks back in and Longing’s final statement of morose death-doom is begun. More than any of the three “heavier” parenthetically-titled tracks before it, “I Wait” is about the tradeoff between quiet stretches and sonically crushing mass, screams topping more leads and extended drum fills resulting in a kind of abysmal psychedelic churn, but the changes remain fluid. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the older version or simply the idea of it being written beforehand (I don’t actually know that it was, come to think of it) that makes it so, but “I Wait” seems more frustrated than its title might lead one to believe. The song continues its slow course until well after nine minutes have passed, and only then does the sorrow overwhelm it and it leaps from the cliff of tone it has created, the pace quickening (relatively) as leads back layered chants and screams that offer the final push of the album. It’s not quite as powerful or as fulfilled a thrust as that which capped “Rows (of Endless Waves),” but it makes sense going into the contemplative drone of the 3:27 “Outro,” which despite being undercut by not being given a name other than that which describes what it is, remains evocative. Longing is rarely immediate, but the more open one is to the varied interpretations of the extreme – the sonic, the emotional, the ambient – that Bell Witch proffer, the more one is going to come around to the material itself. The album doesn’t stun, it stirs, and after a few times through, the full depth of the duo’s intricacy seems to be revealed, only to be pushed further the next time around. If this is the next product of some perceived doom revival, so be it.

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