Music

Loud and Ugly: The haunting symphony of Bell Witch’s “Mirror Reaper”

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Loud and Ugly: The haunting symphony of Bell Witch’s “Mirror Reaper”

 

Turnover in a sizeable band can lead to the breakdown of a once optimal machine. With one member change, a band can lose their edge, get lost, sound like imitations of themselves. A new member can invigorate a band–give them the harmonies they were missing, the percussive drive that just wasn’t there previously, imbue them with a new sense of purpose. For Bell Witch– a somber metal duo from Seattle–the loss of founding drummer Adrian Guerra triggered a metamorphosis.

Guerra had already departed the band in 2016 when he died in his sleep. Bassist Dylan Desmond had already confronted Guerra about his drinking problem–exhausted and frustrated, they parted ways. Desmond then continued Bell Witch with Guerra’s roommate drummer Jesse Shreibman. A recent Vice article documented the change.

I was enabling [Adrien] and I felt responsible,” says Desmond, who parted ways with Guerra and then asked Shreibman to play drums in Bell Witch. After much deliberation and a heart-to-heart conversation with Guerra, Shreibman took his place behind the kit (and microphone). Bell Witch 2.0 immediately began composing their new record.

The new pair traveled the world playing what has been labeled “funeral doom” but to my ears is simply some of the most astonishingly sorrowful and sweet compositions I’ve ever heard. The band’s 2015 release Four Phantoms was constructed of two 20-minute songs and two 10-minute tracks. Their latest, Mirror Reaper, is a single 82-minute track composed of subtle bass melodies, swelling organs, loping drumming and sparse vocal arrangements. The composition is split in two halves: “As Above” and “So Below.”

The song was written before Guerra’s death but the band recorded it soon after and they’ve admitted in a number of interviews that the recording process also served as grieving. The album’s lyrical themes, while flirting with death, seem less about oblivion and more about being stuck in the position of knowing that nothingness is where you are headed. Schreibman screams, Desmond’s vocals are delivered in an echoing layered chant. All at once opposed and aligned.

It’s toward the swelling, cathartic middle of Mirror Reaper that the band introduces vocal tracks recorded by Guerra before his passing. His screams here are soul-wrenching–they play as the sound of a man tormented, condemned but fighting, scraping, clawing forward.

The last 20 minutes feature the sweet calm of Erik Moggridge’s Irish croon. The folk singer is a regular collaborator–on Mirror Reaper his appearance feels supernatural, it’s unforgettable, unshakeable.

Mirror Reaper could serve as a funeral hymn for Guerra. But that isn’t what it was designed for. It isn’t an album that lives in death, among pale lonely statues and rotting flowers. It’s a work of art that documents the human condition, recognizes the deep sorrow associated with it and asks that we continue to push forward.

 

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