Sometimes the right album comes along at the right time. It hits the spot, massaging all the right places in your psyche. An aural salve to the cuts and grazes of the real world. Stygian Bough Volume 1 has been the first aid that I needed recently. Growing ever more exasperated and frustrated at humanity in both the real world and the virtual one I was losing hope. Hitting up against bureaucracy and the powers that be in my day to day life and struggling with some personal stuff I was one more angry punk album from losing the plot.
Then, like a giant furry hug Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin arrived, scooped me up in their giant sloth like paws and things took a turn for the better.
Bell Witch have been getting a ton of hype in the world of Doom and Sludge for the last few years, whilst still managing to keep much of the mainstream metal community at arms length. This is possibly due to the fact that the duo do not boast a guitarist within their ranks which to much of the rock world immediately screams “FALSE” and “BURN THE HERETICS!”. Add to that the fact that their last album “Mirror Reaper” was over 80 mins long and featured only one track that had to be spilt to fit on two compact discs and there is quite an impenetrable wall that Donald can only dream of, especially for those who enjoy music in playlist snacks between boxset binges.
Add into the mix Erik Moggridge the dark folk multi-instrumentalist who records as Aerial Ruin who , after adding some guitar parts to Mirror Reaper now brings his genius to a full collaboration with Jesse Shreibman and Dylan Desmond of Bell Witch. This is an interesting stew!
Folk and metal have walked hand in hand for a little while. There is something about the mysticism, the protest and the woods and campfires that crosses over across the genres. Usually it is European folk that gets the longest time on the spotlight , leading to no end of horn and fiddle based ditties about mead, pirates and Vikings that got as old and stale as the leather jerkins that the bands wore in about as much time as it took the woad to sweat off their faces.
American folk has not been mined as much by the metal world. Wolves in the Throne Room and Panopticon have done so with great effect and the Numenorean backwoods country band Raw have taken us down a similar path. With the injection of Aerial Ruin, Bell Witch have added to the Americana that has been lurking in the background of their previous releases and it certainly spices things up.
The opening track “Bastard Wind” is almost an album in itself – not just due to its 19 minutes length, which is reason enough , but rather to its twists and turns . Starting acoustically “Bastard Wind” – which is the video single by the way – with a beautifully warm guitar tone in which you can almost smell the wood of the sound hole. Moggridge lulls the listener with is gentle tones for several minutes atop some smoky atmospheric keys before the large funeral riffs kick in alongside the harsh vocals of Schriebman taking things in a different although not unusual direction. As would be expected from Bell Witch the sound is like a blue whale descending onto a steel platform in reduced gravity – repeatedly and the spaces between each note cause ecstatic anticipation. Aerial Ruin and Bell Witch are truly a match made in doom heaven (or hell depending on your wont).
The following two tracks are one piece split in two – Heaven Torn Low (The Passage) and Heaven Torn Low (The Toll) . The first part is a gentle as a ripple on a pond. At times I am reminded of Simon and Garfunkel and I start to check my own hair for flowers – before remembering that I am as bald as the proverbial coot. A delightful folky psyche lite track to float away on. The Toll erupts on a crashing chord held in palace by crash of a cymbal – this is the payment for our genteel journey in part one. Still things are kept calm by a lilting vocal that hangs above the music that resonates as if played within a vast cathedral. The feeling evoked is one of melancholy and life rather than dread and mourning. Plenty of slow mo headbanging here.
The 19 minute track “The Unbodied Air” closes out the album so the chaps offer us a 4 minute Prelude which consists of a deliciously warm acoustic bass accompanied by a Hammond organ to massage the ear drums and allow some stretching of both mind and body.
Just as well as there is a mountain to climb. Don’t get me wrong, “The Unbodied Air” is not a tumultuous peak best avoided- I know many see such lengthy doom as exercises in endurance. Rather this track offers the reverse of “The Bastard Wind” with Bell Witch directing slow traffic.
Gigantic riffs swoop in and out of haunting keys and drums that mirror the heartbeat of only the fittest humans in existence – or those about to shuffle off. Then just as I become accustomed to the sludge things seems to quicken – not by much, but in this world it seems like a sprint. Thins become death/doom all of a sudden and the soft moss that was the bed of the music becomes spiky and filled with sharp sticks and bloodied thorns. Then as quickly, things take a floaty quasi religious air and the listener is carried to safety above the throng. The best becomes beauty and the haunting vocal returns and it feels like the dawning of a new day. Then I see there is still 9 minutes left to go. The doom returns and brings with it the sound of a world collapsing in on itself. The keys almost sound like iron wrenching from the earth before concertinaing into nothingness. The sound though, is one of beauty and surrender rather than one of destruction. The vocal is one of an omnipotent narrator leading the listener into the abyss as things collapse in oh so slow motion – think Inception in Middle Earth. Then when all is done an ancient horn blows. That’s it!
This album is a wonderful sonic journey though a vast landscape of undulating hills and valleys filled with Americana, dirty sludge, the most sombre doom and also uplifting celebration. It is a road worth taking.
(9/10 Matt Mason)