2017 Song of the Year: Bell Witch, “Mirror Reaper”

bell witch (photo david choe)

It could be a few years before the scope of Bell Witch‘s Mirror Reaper is fully understood. The single-song, 83-minute, Profound Lore-released third full-length from the Seattle-based funeral sludge outfit, it is a work as likely to digest the listener as to be digested by them, and in its level of vision and execution, it should be considered nothing less than a generational accomplishment within doom’s most extreme ends. Front-to-back, it casts itself into progressive depths of headphone- and hyperbole-worthy murk, departing from the ground that the two-piece established on their 2015 offering, Four Phantoms (review here), the preceding 2012 debut, Longing (review here), and 2011 demo (review here) into a downward-aimed ether that seems to plunge as much in emotionality as in tempo. On either level, its gravity is unmistakable, and with the production of Billy Anderson behind it, an analogy to what Sleep‘s Dopesmoker once brought to stoner-doom feels all the more appropriate to the level of statement bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond and drummer/organist/vocalist Jesse Shreibman are making within Mirror Reaper‘s no-bottom plummet. Make no mistake: this is a definitive achievement — both for Bell Witch and for any and all who’d dare follow in their wake.

One has to note that Mirror Reaper arrived this Fall as the band’s first work since the untimely death of original drummer Adrian Guerra last year at age 36. Guerra, who’d left Bell Witch after Four Phantoms, was nonetheless an essential facet in making their earlier work what it was, and it’s entirely likely that Mirror Reaper‘s ultra-resonant sense of mournfulness stems indeed from a genuine place of grief. In the lyrics, lines like “Floods that sleeve the reach of the drought/To bleed evermore/Empty me/Empty me/Ash of the ocean,” and “An ice of pieces/Of what was once there/The skin of being/Flayed as though the air,” seem to be manifesting an emotional processing in raw form, and the weight of the indecipherable growling and folkish clean delivery — Aerial Ruin‘s Erik Moggridge guests again on vocals as he did on Four Phantoms — is all the more palpable for the instrumental flow it complements, shifting with seamless patience between crushing tones and harsh, lumbering crash, and stretches so minimal as to be barely there, the first of which occurs about 17 minutes in and carries through a subtle build that unfolds over the next eight or so minutes, introducing the first of Mirror Reaper‘s chants and barely giving the audience time to stare back at how far the two-piece have already come in the 10 minutes since they were growling and plodding past the eight-minute mark with unbridled, Hammond-inclusive brutality. That duality is telling, but still only the beginning of what Bell Witch will unfurl over the subsequent hour of Mirror Reaper, which continues to grow more vicious and more reverberating as it plays out.

Because of its extended runtime, the piece itself — that is, “Mirror Reaper,” the title-track — is broken bell witch mirror reaperinto two parts for the CD release. These are titled “Mirror Reaper (As Above)” and “Mirror Reaper (So Below),” where on the 2LP edition of the album, its four sides are simply “As,” “Above” and “So” and “Below,” in that order. I can’t speak to the differing experience of hearing Mirror Reaper across these varied formats, but there’s little question that it was meant to be taken in its entirety one way or the other. This is, of course, also its most challenging form, and there are times when its assault on its audience feels especially geared as a litmus test for how much one can take, but even as Bell Witch hone a tension of growl-accompanied crashes at around 35 minutes in, there’s more happening than extremity for its own sake. That is to say, Mirror Reaper is not just pushing boundaries of sonic decency as an exercise in trying to make itself a next-level effort in punishment. Its greatest asset, rather, is the sense of expressiveness behind each measure’s excruciating roll, and as it makes its way toward and past the its halfway point, there is as much about it that could be called poetic as there is atmospherically ranging. At 45:40, clean vocals and growls come together over full-boar plod and organ and Bell Witch seem to find a moment with all elements active at once, producing an entrancing effect that caps with an especially scathing scream and echoing-out tones before shifting again into a slow, minimal bassline — this is the break point of the tracks on the CD version — in preparation for the song’s next stage.

By this point it should be well clear to anyone who’s managed to take Mirror Reaper on that there will be no escape. This mournful chronicle of our times is no less likely than those times an seem to be to swallow the consciousness whole, and that’s no less true as the folk-style verses begin circa 53 minutes in, carrying past the hour mark and into a section of church-style organ that, just as the 69th minute becomes the 70th, is met by resurgent bass tone and the final swell of crawling volume that lands as the emotional apex, returning to the initial heavy progression but staying with the cleaner vocals instead of growls, tying the various sides of the entirety together with no less fluidity than Bell Witch have to this point put in the transitions from one movement to the next. The final five minutes or so of Mirror Reaper are given to drone folk and the closing lines, “The pendulum slows/Then stilled under the cold/In absence he flies/In presence we will writhe,” coming across with the bare emotional presence and melodicism of a half-speed Warning in search of peace that it may or may not have found or find, the last note of “writhe” held out over a sudden end, as though there were still more to say after everything that came before but that it was cut short for a gorgeous and poignant finish. And there may well be, about the nature of resignation, of grief, or of our ongoing and ever-developing relationship with our own mortality and that of those around us, loved ones and otherwise, but part of what makes Mirror Reaper so engrossing is that rather than posture and philosophize these issues, it sidesteps the need for distance and carries the audience with it through a more experiential representation. It puts you there. You don’t need to talk about it. You’re going through it together.

Again, I do not believe at this point it’s really possible to understand what Bell Witch have done with Mirror Reaper, but there’s no question in my mind that it is a pivotal work in setting a new standard for a style it’s essentially recrafting to suit its own purposes. There is not a level on which it doesn’t succeed in this effort, and because of this, because of its sheer scale and because of the cohesion underlying its impossibly darkened sprawl, there is no doubt in my mind that “Mirror Reaper” is the 2017 song of the year.

Honorable Mention

I’m a big believer in the context of full albums, so it’s always hard to pick individual tracks that are such standouts. Nonetheless, here are a few more to chew on, in no particular order:

Lo-Pan, “Pathfinder”
All Them Witches, “3-5-7”
Spaceslug, “Time Travel Dilemma”
Colour Haze, “Labyrinthe”
Alunah, “Feast of Torches”
Moon Rats, “Heroic Dose”
Argus, “Devils of Your Time”
The Flying Eyes, “Drain”
Avon, “Six Wheeled Action Man Tank”
Sun Blood Stories, “The Great Destroyer”

Some of these and a whole slew of others were included in the Year-End Spotify playlist that went up yesterday, so if you haven’t yet, make sure you check that out. And if there are any songs you feel like should be on this list or just something that really hit you hard this year, I’d love to know about it in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to “2017 Song of the Year: Bell Witch, “Mirror Reaper””

  1. shirtless mike says:

    In no real order although Demon Head – Untune The Sky is probably my Song Of The Year:

    Demon Head – Untune The Sky / Thunder On The Fields
    Young Hunter – Black Mass
    Atavismo – Volarás
    Colour Haze – Labyrinthe
    Geezer – Dirty Penny
    Stone From The Sky – Zugzwang
    Cities of Mars – Gula, A Bitter Embrace
    Telekinetic Yeti Colossus
    Steak Rough House
    Spaceslug – Living The Eternal Now
    All Them Witches – 3-5-7
    Hällas – Star Rider
    Causa Sui – Seven Hills
    Spectral Haze – Master Sorcerer

  2. Regicide says:

    C’mon, man. This is like calling a Beethoven symphony the year’s best sonnet

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