The popularity of Bell Witch is one of the more surprising and remarkable phenomena of the past few years. In this day and age where humans are outpacing goldfish and fruit flies in the lack of attention span department, for a band to issue a single 70+ minute track of sludgy funereal doom as Dylan Desmond (bass/vocals) and Jesse Schriebman (drums/vocals) did with 2017’s Mirror Reaper – to say nothing of previous compositions which regularly shattered the ten-minute mark – and have people not only pay attention but laud them for a job well done, still makes cynical heads spin. Even if a large number of those folks who would trumpet the band are on par with ‘coffee shop black metallers’ – i.e. “I have black metal records, but spend more time name dropping and talking about having them then actually listening to them” – that a band that wears the term “slow burn” with the same irreverent pride that Cliff Burton wore bell-bottoms has attained their success is astounding.
Stygian Bough Volume 1 isn’t the first time Bell Witch has teamed up with Aerial Ruin – a.k.a. Eric Moggridge (who also plays in Old Grandad with Death Angel’s COVID-19 killer Will Carroll and is an ex-member of ‘80s thrashers Epidemic). Moggridge has regularly joined Bell Witch on stage and been a guest vocalist on each of their three full-lengths. This album, however, appears to be a more fully-fleshed out pairing and equitable collaboration in which the acoustic and electric guitar wealth and a preponderance of clean vocals that are predominately Moggridge’s work in interweaved tandem with the duo's bass and drum throb. And, of course, there are probably a small warehouse of effects pedals at work and humming the background.
Given that this was written and recorded before the world went to hell, its participants likely weren’t thinking about how Stygian Bough Volume 1 would become framed as music for a quarantine. A couple of the tracks close in on 20 minutes, the shorter ones clock in at eight and thirteen and whether it’s a morose pairing of acoustic picking and choral vocal moan or redlining Orange amps and drum beats shooting off like musket fire, everything moves in super slo-mo and prizes languidly stretched out of as much space as the composers feel is needed. All the extra time afforded to most of us in these days of no work, no shows, shuttered restaurants, cobwebbed bars, limited outings and such allows for immersion into, and absorption of, a lengthy, molasses-paced collision of minimalist dark folk and elongated dooooooom. The experience of Stygian Bough would absolutely be different were the listener sitting in commuter traffic, hanging with drunks in noisy taverns, or while trying to make it look like they’re doing work at work.
Opener, “The Bastard Wind” sees mellow field folk hymns wading through knee-deep clinical depression before the air of a Woodstock come-down takes over and sets the table for an attack of bowel rumbling chords, soaring hippy vocals and a smattering of percussion. Doom fans will wonder what took so long, sensitive folk heads will bemoan distortion and cannonball blast drumming as a micro-aggression and everyone will wonder about the abrupt mood swing. “Heaven Torn Low (The Passage)” is lengthy and sparse, but far from empty as a small variety of acoustic passages anchor an enduringly catchy vocal phrase. There’s just enough of a shift between the song’s two or three major themes to maintain interest over the course of 12:55.
It’s much more difficult to say the same for the track’s adjunct “Heaven Torn Low (The Toll)” which is the funereal doom denouement, but exists far too one-dimensionally and lacks any sort of appreciable movement outside of a crashing crescendo of drums and cymbals that lock onto chord accents. “The Unbodied Air” builds off of a simple and recognisable power chord riff pattern, adding guitar layers, increasingly brutal vocals, and even a gradual pick up in the tempo department around the four or five-minute mark. It’s a track that mostly groans Mournful Congregation, Skepticism, and Evoken before taking a turn towards a diffusive ambient/indie rock section and heading back into the onslaught of sustain peppered with pastoral-sounding overdubbed harmonic melodies.
This is one is all about time and patience. Stygian Bough is not a quick and easy spin. It’s one that requires a good portion of the listener’s attention be paid to it in light of the drawn-out expanses of metallic thunder, scant neo-folk, and the extended, flatlands trajectory of those elements. Put it on and be exposed to its balance of solemnity and catastrophe. But note that if rapt attention isn’t being paid, it’s a record that could easily, and at any point, disappear into the background.