By: Tim LaVoie
This March, the Seattle’s funeral-doom metal titans Bell Witch pummeled a transfixed crowd at Club Café. The duo’s thunderous sound bears all the trappings of the classic Finnish doom metal they cite as main influences; yet, Bell Witch’s unique no-guitar set-up has allowed them to develop a slogging, punishingly heavy, sonic realm that’s all their own. Last year Bell Witch released its second full-length album, Four Phantoms, to cross-media critical acclaim. (Four Phantoms landed at #12 in this publication’s Best Albums of 2015 list). That the metal press showered accolades on Four Phantoms surprised no one. That it continued to be lauded month after month in the non-metal mainstream and indie music press came with more than a little surprise to the band.
Speaking with bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond before the show, he noted the changes it that have taken place over the last year. “This time last year I was listening to final mixes of Four Phantoms, and listening to it over and and over and over again. My roommates hated me. I’d listen to it really loudly, I’d listen to it on headphones, I’d listen to it in my car, I’d listen to it on my computer. I was just trying to find any little thing - any little wrong note or a part where the vocals might have been a little off, that sort of thing. Now it’s all about touring.”
Bell Witch’s growing media presence is no result of a watering down of the product in search of the dreaded “crossover appeal.” Four Phantoms is in many ways a difficult record. If anything, Bell Witch enhanced their artistry from their debut album, 2012’s Longing. For stretches of up to 10 minutes at a time, shimmering cymbals and finger-tapped bass harmonics are overlaid with Desmond’s meditative, mournful vocals. These passages evoke a plodding funeral march of cloaked, chanting monks across a Dune-like dessert spacescape. Lulled into a form of lamenting catharsis, the impossibly slow creep instills an odd sense of calm, stoical comfort. Then at the moment the listener lets their guard down, mallet-wielding drummer/vocalist Jesse Shreibman blasts through the haunted house-like fog pounding on drums with his full body weight, unleashing a deep, chthonic growl. The transformation from haunting elegance to car-crash intensity that takes place in each track is a musical endeavor that really needs to be heard to be understood.
Each of the four massive tracks on Four Phantoms focuses on one of the four basic elements, or from the perspective the band, “phantoms.” This provides the album with thematic unity, and song titles like, “Suffocation, A Drowning II: Somniloquy (The Distance Of Forever).” Desmond explained that the concept and themes of Four Phantoms “developed as we were writing the songs. First there was kinda just two big songs. I thought, man, these are excessively long - they won’t even fit on the side of a record - which is ridiculous. But chopping this up would seem like it wouldn’t work. We were looking at it and thought, well we can take pieces of this here, and elaborate on this; and all of a sudden this is two different pieces, and we can kinda make them in sections. We were doing all the music stuff before any lyrics and the concept stuff were put into it. Those were added in based on where the music was leading and it just took a life of its own. Everything just fell into place. And with the concept it was just sort of like oh, this is perfect. It’s four takes on one theme. Obviously this is what this was always supposed to be.”
The album pushes both sides of the band to its extremes. Regarding these outer reaches of both crushing heaviness and soaring harmony Four Phantoms covers, Desmond explained he’s not actively trying to push the boundaries of how slow and heavy music can get, it’s more just what he’d want to hear as a fan. Speaking about the creative process, he stated, “I think that I have an idea going into each new song. I don’t know how it’s going to start; pretty, or heavy and ugly. I don’t necessarily have an idea like that. But I do always approach the writing process with the same approach that this should be going in waves, there should be peaks and valleys. If I could compare it to geological terms; I don’t want it to be hills, I want it to be like Mount Everest where it’s so high up you’re going to suffocate, and so down low that you’re then at the bottom of the ocean. I’d rather it be very extreme on one end or the other. I feel like anything in the middle is filler. Which may be unavoidable, but I would rather it be as intense to whatever spectrum possible because otherwise I don’t really feel like it’s giving itself justice.”
After an impressive opening set from art-metal collective Wrekmeister Harmonies - in which Bell Witch constituted the rhythm section - Desmond and Shreibman guided the crowd through an hour-plus long study in extremes of which no other active band could pull off. Earplugs abounded in the packed crowd that came prepared for Shreibman’s dinosaur-stomping percussion and subterranean grumblings. But to build up to those parts, Desmond’s technically impressive, sailing bass harmonics elevated his whispering-through-the-graveyard vocals to new emotive heights.
Desmond explained the history of the band’s unique no-guitar set-up that’s allowed Bell Witch to bring the metal sub-sub-genre of funeral doom to new critical peaks. “There’s a guy named Michael Hedges that I got into when I was younger. Some of it’s kinda hippy-dippy, and a little much at times, but he’s got other stuff that’s just beautiful and incredible. He has this two-handed tapping thing that he’ll do it on an acoustic guitar, and he just flys. Every finger on his hand is being utilized, it’s like watching someone play a grand piano on a guitar neck. It’s just really impressive the noises that he gets and the sounds just blew me away. I was listening to him all the time years ago and I thought - ‘I’m going to try to do that on the bass.’ There was a time when I had a different band before Bell Witch, and the guitar player quit. And we were kinda joking around and saying oh well, and just kept playing. Everything was a little more clear with one less instrument. Everything had been a little too muddy. I said, ‘I’ve been kinda trying this weird tapping thing maybe I can try to tap guitar lines on my bass.’ And it kinda just went from there.”
Asked if Bell Witch’s new-found popularity is something he’s enjoying, or if he feels like he has to keep checking his metal credentials, Desmond found a middle ground. “I definitely do like hearing from so many different people that I wouldn’t necessarily think would be into what we do. In my eyes the songs we’re writing have always been kind of unapproachable. You know, 20 minute songs that are so slow and sleepy. In my mind it’s always been something that I thought people wouldn’t be into and that they’d write off as ‘What is this?’ So from that perspective I think it’s very gratifying to be hearing from folks that I wouldn’t expect to be enjoying it, to hear them say ‘Wow, this is really cool. I like this.’”
A bartender by day, Desmond continued, “I’ll get it at work too. I’ll be bartending and someone will come up and say, ‘Hey I really like that album.’ And I’m like, ‘Who are you? How do you even know about that?’ It’s a cool feeling, so I don’t worry about not being underground enough or anything like that. I think that’s kind a silly thing to worry about. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately in terms of writing new material - I think sometimes when I’ve seen bands that do get a lot of attention, there’s maybe an element of they’re listening too much to their press, and their new material starts to come out and it’s self-indulgent. Maybe it loses some of the directness and essence of the material that wasn’t being gratified so much by others.”
Turning such an extreme sound into dynamic and engaging live entertainment presents Bell Witch with unique challenges. Minutes-long stretches of music are so plodding that they sound as if slowed down just a fraction more they would actually stop. But the band’s set at Club Café was so meticulously constructed the entire room was united in a trance unfurled upon it by Desmond’s sorrowful, monk-like vocals and punishing bass. He explained his approach: “I try to make the sets always have a flow. So that they all kind of blend together into one piece. While most bands stop after every song, which is all good and fine, I don’t really like to do that. Once we hit the first note, there’s no break until the set’s over. So we always try to pick songs that can flow into each other on a dynamic and tonal level. The last note of one song has to fit with the first note of the next song. With our songs being so long, it does pose difficulties. Sometimes we show up and the venue is like, ‘you have a half hour set’ - great, we can play one song.”
The interest in doom metal continues to grow beyond the of the greater metal community; outpaced only by the balance of curiosity and steadfast adoration for the specific brand of sludgy funeral doom Bell Witch seems to have perfected after only two records. Regarding the band’s immediate future, Desmond sees much room for artistic growth. “I’d love to keep going with it. There’s certainly no shortage of room for expansion. The stuff we’re working on right now - we’re toying with the idea of giving Jesse like a organ to play with his feet. It’s got the full scale of the piano but it’s a big foot pedal thing that he can smash away on, and try to incorporate that into some parts. It’ll add a whole different realm of possibilities which is exciting. I listen to a lot of those old Finish funeral doom bands they all had that keyboard that was such an eerie cool thing. So we’re toying with that a little bit, and the sky’s the limit with new sounds like that.” With the buzz surrounding Four Phantoms still gaining steam, Bell Witch are sure to continue crushing what were once seen as the natural limits of their intense, moving sound.