I was 15 when I witnessed honest, heart-crushing grief for the first time.
My father is a stoic man. Reserved and kind, but not one to express his deepest feelings regularly. That changed when my grandfather passed away. At that point in my life I had never seen actual death, only having heard the stories of relatives and friends of my parents long deceased. It was not a reality for me, instead only a thing experienced remotely by people I didn’t know well enough to care about. But on New Year’s Eve, 2004, I went to the hospital with my parents to say goodbye to the remains of my grandfather, who had died that evening. When we arrived after what seemed an interminable amount of time in silence in the car, my father, whom I’d never seen cry in my life, embraced his own father’s lifeless body and wept like I’ve never seen a person weep. Harder than I thought it was possible to cry. So hard that it honestly stunned me into subdued silence. It was to this day the most truly raw and visceral outpouring of emotion I’ve ever witnessed. In the face of an irrevocable loss, and in a state of uncontrollable grief, my father wept for the dead with every ounce of sadness in his heart.
Though attempted countless times, it’s an extremely difficult thing to encapsulate grief in art. While the sounds and textures artists create often render shadows, or perhaps small relics, of the most potent and devastating of our collective and individual experiences, a true testament and monument to the holes in our hearts is hard to find. With their third album, Bell Witch have created their own sepulcher of loss and grief built from their own experience. And let it be written quickly and without hesitation, Mirror Reaper is an absolute marvel. A single track clocking in at over 83-minutes, it’s a monolithic, inaccessible titan of a funeral doom record. It’s not easy to jump into at any place other than the beginning, is as deliberately dirge-like as you’re likely to hear any record be probably ever, and revolves around one particular and truly uncomfortable theme: Personal grief. In 2015, the band’s former drummer Adrian Guerra died in his sleep. This loss is reflected in every inch of this record, and is the focal point through which the band have created not only the best music of their career, but one of the best albums in any genre of 2017. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album, and it deserves to be experienced uninterrupted and in its entirety.
That last part is probably the toughest sell for Mirror Reaper. 83-plus minutes of some of the most truly funereal doom recorded in years is a tough pill to swallow for even the staunchest of the genre’s fans, let alone the fact that the entire album is one freakin’ track. Why not break the record up into more digestible pieces to the same effect? Who has time during an extremely busy day to sit through this entire record? It isn’t commute, lunch break, or morning run friendly. All valid points, and only answered by taking the time to absorb the magnitude of this record the way it was intended. Meaning, in one sitting. This is not a conglomeration of songs that the band decided to remove the borders from for kicks and giggles. Mirror Reaper is most definitely a single composition with rotating, cycling themes that appear throughout the track with regularity and moderate variation. It’s written as and intended to be a single song, and requires a full and attentive listen to capture its most fundamental essence.
This all sounds very torturous, to be honest. But the music here more than justifies the runtime and the effort it takes to digest. What Dylan Desmond (bass and vocals) and Jesse Shreibman (drums, Hammond B3 organ, and vocals) have created here is a kaleidoscopic display of compositional weight, heft, and remarkable restraint. The performances on Mirror Reaper are masterful, with each artist utilizing space, atmosphere, tone, and power to incredible effect. You can feel the emotion dripping from these bass notes, and the deliberate and spacy thundering of Shreibman’s drums creates an ominous thunderhead of dread and power that compliments the more melodic passages of this track brilliantly. As has been the case in each preceding Bell Witch record, Desmond’s bass work is absolutely fantastic, and the tone of the instrument is like nothing else in metal. Every note rings out deliberately and powerfully with levels of clarity that are downright enviable. Desmond is in full control of his instrument, and it shows more readily than ever in Mirror Reaper. Additionally, Shreibman’s utilization of the organ could have utterly ruined everything good about this record. Instead, the atmosphere created by the mournful and subdued tone of the instrument add extra heft to an already incredibly weighty sonic palette. In all, the simplicity of the band’s line-up creates an extremely complimentary panorama of sound that is never once less than excellent.
Though the instrumental performances on this record are as sharp as the band has yet conjured, the vocal performances are for me the true highlight of the record. Joined by guest vocalist Erik Moggridge (Aerial Ruin) and unused recordings of Adrian Guerra from their last album Four Phantoms, the band creates a varied and rich approach to the vocal arrangements throughout the track. Desmond’s growls juxtapose themselves against Moggridge’s soaring and utterly gorgeous cleans, as Guerra’s ghost lingers through his powerful screams. It’s a combination of vocal choices that lift an already fantastic soundscape into the stratosphere, allowing the record to feel something more than the sum of its parts. Together, each of these elements create an ethereal and trance-like experience that is difficult to find an adequate comparison to. The whole process is helped immensely by some stellar production work by Billy Anderson, who allows these components to shine individually without once losing the sense of overwhelmingly bleak and contemplative atmosphere that the band creates. In each aspect of the recording process, Bell Witch’s bold choices pay off in incredibly impactful ways. All the way down to the album art, which is as fantastic as I have seen in years. All hail artist Mariusz Lewandowski, a legend in the making.
Heavy personal grief is an extremely difficult thing to watch and/or experience. It’s also an equally difficult thing to capture in any form of art. Bell Witch have done so here in a way so bold and astonishing that I honestly cannot remember another musical experience comparable to it. With Mirror Reaper, the band plunge us into the depths of grief and sadness so thoroughly that I found myself transported back to that moment in a hospital room years ago, where grief was laid bare in all its life-altering intensity. You will not hear another album like this in 2017. Perhaps ever. It’s a unique, stunning piece of work that most certainly is not for everyone. I don’t believe it’s intended to be. For those who love their doom gorgeous and funereal, you’ve found your holy grail. For those who remember death and the all-encompassing specter of personal grief, you’ve found a companion. A mesmerizing, powerful, and utterly transformative record. One of the absolute best of the year.
Mirror Reaper is available for purchase through Profound Lore Records, and is now streaming on all major services.