Washington’s Bell Witch released one of the seminal albums of the last decade in Mirror Reaper. Whether enamored or repulsed by the band’s one-track 83-minute opus, you’ll be hard pressed to find a metalhead who hasn’t interacted with it in some way. Outside of arguably launching a career in metal album artwork of Polish artist Mariusz Lewandowski, whose art now adorns more album covers than I care to count, Mirror Reaper was a defining statement of inconsolable grief at the loss of a friend (drummer and founding member Adrian Guerra) and a compositional experiment that few in the music world have been able to replicate. It’s a bold, striking, punishing statement by a band who will most likely never be able to recapture that special kind of magic. On their latest and fully collaborative record with dark folk master Aerial Ruin, they don’t even try to.
The latter party may be a bit less of a known commodity than Bell Witch, but if you’ve explored the music of one you (perhaps unwittingly) know the other. As the sole member of Aerial Ruin, Erik Moggridge has been collaborating with Bell Witch since 2012’s Longing, offering up his signature clean vocals as a compliment to Dylan Desmond’s anguished growls, making him an unofficial third member of Bell Witch in his own right. But never have the two entities combined forces to this extent, with their debut record Stygian Bough Volume I representing a clear and equitable combination of powers that’s about as stark a left turn from Mirror Reaper as one could expect from a Bell Witch project, and that’s most certainly not a bad thing.
From the opening notes of “The Bastard Wind”, it’s clear that the dark acoustic folk of Aerial Ruin has a much more prominent part to play than that of guest. This is a truly collaborative project, with songwriting and performative duties feeling equitable and evenly distributed throughout. Moggridge’s eerie acoustic guitar and gentle vocals dominate the first few minutes of the titanic opening track, which clocks in at just under 20 minutes, before Desmond and Bell Witch drummer Jesse Shreibman roar to life in perfect funeral doom fashion. With this increase in sonic heft, Moggridge lifts his vocals from an understated dirge to a resplendent cry, elevating the track to transcendent emotional levels while appropriately accentuating its musical palette. These opening moments could honestly be considered emblematic of the record as a whole, with both entities presenting a level of cooperation that makes each track feel utterly seamless in conception and execution.
As is not always the custom with records that dabble in funeral doom, Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin here not only succeed in writing quality material throughout, but also display a fair amount of diversity in arrangement, keeping listeners on their toes. The two-part epic “Heaven Torn Low” features Moggridge almost exclusively in its first half for just under 13 minutes of pristine, atmospheric folk, serving as a slow-build to the track’s second half, in which Desmond and Shreibman once again bring the music to a release that presents one of the most singular and cathartic moments of either band’s career. Achieving the same emotional effect through multiple means is just another example of Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin’s mastery of songwriting in this space, as well as the pitch perfect nature of their collaboration. The above culminates in finale “The Unbodied Air”, which is the best track that either band has been party to since Mirror Reaper. Shreibman in particular shines here, with his kit adding fills and unusually up-tempo power as the track progresses. It’s an absolutely gargantuan work of art that puts each project’s strengths on full, magnanimous display, capping an already exceptional collection of tracks in about as perfect a manner as one could hope for.
There are very few weaknesses to speak of in Stygian Bough Volume I. It’s a collaborative record that more than adequately displays the talents of each group with equal effectiveness, blending styles into a captivating whole that feels both distinctly like each band while presenting a new and fortified musical manifestation. It’s as good as we could have hoped for and then some, and I certainly hope this is only the first of many collaborative volumes in the journey of Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin as a unified musical entity. No follow-up could possibly recapture the elegiac magnificence of Mirror Reaper, and thankfully here neither party attempts such a feat. It’s a bold, intense, and eerily beautiful step in a new direction, and one of the most compelling doom metal releases of the year.
Stygian Bough Volume I is out now on Profound Lore Records, and is available for purchase on Bandcamp.