(Weaved in the needle)
the cycle turns around
Air, burnt to ashen mountains
(Weaving the ground)
– Adrien Guerra, “Words of the Dead,” Mirror Reaper
Bell Witch’s 2012 debut, Longing, was a vigorously slow-burning album that counterposed airy doom tones and heavy-landing melodies against a distant, shadowy landscape of solemn drumming. Longing gestured toward the ground and our inevitable reunion with it, but it also pointed ahead, its rumbling guitars drafting a contract that would be signed by 2015’s Four Phantoms. That album not only saw the music of Dylan Desmond (bass) and Adrien Guerra (drums) come into a stunningly coherent maturity, but it also ushered in a colossal sense of funereal drama that pushed Bell Witch to the head of the contemporary doom metal pack. It is a formidable work that warrants deep listening; its third track alone, “Suffocation, a Drowning: II - Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever),” is a 23-minute tour de force that takes a journey from shimmering nickel-and-steel solitude to deafening canyons of blown-out fuzz and back again. Lines like “Cold betrayal/ With the river flows the lesser souls of hell/ So the river holds me as well” is nothing short of an unwelcome punch right to the sternum.
Indeed, with Four Phantoms, Bell Witch arrived as a reckoning, but their beginning was also, in a sense, the beginning of an imminent end. Shortly following its release, Desmond confronted Guerra about his increasing alcoholism. Facing a choice about whether to stay or go, Guerra parted ways with Desmond and was replaced by drummer Jesse Shreibman. On May 17, 2016, Guerra died in his sleep. Although Mirror Reaper — a single 83-minute track — was already being composed before Guerra’s passing, the album is very much an attempt to wrestle with his loss. “The song is about something that is in the gray area between death and life,” Desmond would tell Noisey. “Its body is dying, but it is still conscious. It’s saying ‘make this purgatory stop. Have Mercy.’”
Building on the work with Guerra, Desmond and Shreibman as Bell Witch have an uncanny ability to make their metal feel ancient, spiritual, even liturgical. It’s a skill that, one would imagine, comes from both an intense study of black metal and a deep-seated holding of melancholy and grief. All of Bell Witch’s music is about death in one way or another, but Mirror Reaper represents a different kind of immersion with it. Guerra is present throughout, his ghost presiding over it all. In the moment where the album’s first half transitions into the second, his voice is audible, a calculated and moving tribute to the late musician. His verses, which are printed in the epigraph to this review, are remnants from the Four Phantoms sessions.
At its core, Mirror Reaper explores the relationships between apparent opposites: stasis and movement, life and death, time and infinity. The ceremonial guitars of its opening moments demand stillness, their methodical harmonic changes seductively beckoning the listener into the world of “As Above,” the unofficial title of the first half of the album. The first “movement” of “As Above,” which feels like the soundtrack to an arcane and sacred ritual, lasts around 25 minutes (in my estimation) and has a distinctly elegiac vibe that should be instantly recognizable to fans of Four Phantoms. Since there are no demarcated songs here, the transition into the next section starts with an elision. The music maintains its drive as it moves, risking the occasional drag in the more languid sections, but never succumbing to a total loss of momentum. In that respect, the meaning of the album’s slowest moments comes down to a question of the listener’s ability to invest their attention without wandering or taking breaks. These transitions are necessarily slow, because in the absence of individual tracks, they’re a relief from the tempestuous moments. For example, one can’t simply start listening to the second “movement” of Mirror Reaper unless they endeavor to locate that moment manually within the work. Regardless of how you approach it, Mirror Reaper is a challenging experience, tasking listeners with the question of whether they can actually listen to these 83 minutes as intended: together. In my dark apartment, amid candles and a muted phone, I tried to do it, and I found myself sliding toward a different temporality.
Mirror Reaper’s third “movement” is a vision of serenity in the void, a fragile vessel caught in the flow of infinity. Meter doesn’t exist here, only the pulses that Desmond’s bass gives off with its peaceful harmonies. A voice enters: “Be not where you lay, lest the bond be broken/ Vanish you stay/ Timeless in the well, lest the song is spoken/ Over for the sell.” Celestial sighs enter in falsetto against murky whispers, a prolonged moment of vulnerability that’s truly rare in doom metal. The album’s finale follows, an extended, organ-filled fantasia that bears the distinct feeling that time and space have been traversed. A heavy bass melody announces our arrival on the shores of somewhere unknown. Crashing drums are navigated by mountainous bass lines. At the end of this journey, Desmond and Schreibman are still in control, still alive, their essence intact. “The pendulum slows/ Then stilled under the cold/ In absence he flies/ In presence we will writhe.” Everything evaporates into stillness. Bell Witch’s vision of what lies beyond is filled with both rippling beauty and the looming threat of negation. Still, somehow, it’s a tempting invitation.