So much of the metal I listen to is so fast and furious that when I dived into Longing, the debut album by Seattle’s Bell Witch, I felt like a sprinter who’d been dropped in his tracks, as if the gravitational pull of the Earth had suddenly been quintupled. The pace of this tremendously heavy music is far slower than the beat of a human heart, yet a heart beats within it, as the songs push and pull between the sounds of devastation and salvation.
Longing is an apt title for this album. Its six atmospheric tracks create an uncanny ambience of loss and despair, a sense of isolation and depressive wistfulness, and often the feeling of unavoidable catastrophe and even horror. Yet the dark and brutal hopelessness of the songs is offset by slow, beautiful melodies — not cheerful ones, mind you, but profound expressions of melancholy.
The music is amazingly simple and spare. The only instruments employed by the Bell Witch duo of Dylan Desmond and Adrian Guerra are bass and drums (respectively), and their voices. I assume the bass is a six-string instrument, because those aching melodies are often carried by notes that climb up the register, often free of the massive distortion that surrounds the cave-in chords at the bottom of every song.
Two of the tracks — and they are the shortest ones — consist of no instruments but the bass, and no vocals. In “Beneath the Mask”, slow, reverberating notes and chords provide grim accompaniment for a sample from the Roger Corman 1964 horror classic Masque of the Red Death, in which the Satan-worshipper Prince Prospero discovers the identity of the Man in Red. The final track, “Outro”, is simply a bass solo — ponderous, booming, yet still woven with bleak melody.
The remaining four tracks range in length from more than 12 minutes to more than 20. They rarely exceed the pace of funeral doom, with massive fuzzed-out bass chords and crushing drum and cymbal explosions methodically pounding the listener into mute submission. Long spaces sometimes separate these radioactive hammer blasts of conjoined bass and drum, and even at highest speed, the music still crawls like a wounded beast.
The variety within these long desolate soundscapes comes principally from two sources. The first are those entrancing and even soulful melodies. Like everything else about the songs, they evolve slowly, the notes falling like intermittent drops of water from the vaulted ceiling of a damp cave. They range from the heart-wrenching to the almost hopeful, tempering the utter remorselessness of the deep chords and pounding percussion underneath. Somehow, as slow and separated as those melodies are, and as overwhelming brutal as the low-end accompaniment is, they get stuck in the mind, still roaming through the memory after the sound has died away.
The second source of variety lies in the vocals. Both Desmond and Guerra are listed as vocalists, and between them they contribute horrific, cavernous roars, so slow that they are essentially wordless and fundamentally inhuman; prolonged hair-raising shrieks that are equally horrifying; and clean vocals in the style of Gregorian chant.
The clean chanted vocals display considerable range, sometimes a droning bass, the words again voiced so slowly and in such a prolonged manner that the lyrics are lost, and sometimes arcing skyward in a striking manner. In “Rows (Of Endless Waves)”, a strong, clean tenor (provided by guest vocalist Erik Moggridge of Aerial Ruin) rises in passionate, even urgent song (the only departure from the chanted style of clean vox).
The monastic vocals, when they appear, are part of what lends Longing its spiritual quality, and yes, despite the predominantly ravaging, despairing atmosphere of the album, I do think it’s a spiritual work. It’s the kind of music that will leave listeners feeling mesmerized and vulnerable, battered but not broken. It has the kind of aura that made me think if Leonard Cohen had been into doom when he recorded his first album, it would have sounded like Longing.
Bell Witch have created something special here, a desolate hymn to loss and the lost that’s as crushingly heavy as anything you’ll hear this year, yet capable of revealing a terrible beauty in its anguish. Highly recommended.
The album features awesome cover art by Bryan Proteau and it’s scheduled for release by Profound Lore on November 13, though it will be available on Bell Witch’s current tour, the remaining dates of which are as follows:
10/07 – Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios (Fall Into Darkness festival)
10/11 – Fargo, ND @ The New Direction
10/12 – Milwaukee, WI @ The Cactus Club
10/13 – Chicago, IL @ Burlington Bar
10/14 – Indianapolis, IN @ The Melody Inn (w/COFFINWORM, Black Goat Of The Woods)
10/15 – Somerville, MA @ Radio Somerville
10/16 – Brooklyn, NY @ The Acheron
10/17 – Baltimore, MD @ Golden West
10/18 – Philadelphia, PA @ Millcreek Tavern
10/19 – Washington DC @ RAS Restaurant And Lounge
10/20 – Richmond, VA @ Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
10/21 – Chattanooga, TN @ Sluggo’s North Vegetarian Cafe (w/LOSS)
10/22 – Nashville, TN @ The End (w/LOSS)
10/23 – Little Rock, AR @ Downtowm Music Hall (w/PALLBEARER)
10/24 – Kansas City, MO @ House Show
10/25 – Denver, CO @ Blast O Mat
10/26 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Dog Pound
10/27 – Boise, ID @ The Shredder
I’m really looking forward to the band’s Seattle homecoming on November 10 at The Highline, when they’ll be performing with Loss, Worm Ouroboros, and Mitochondrion.
And now here’s some music (which we featured before when it first debuted). This is the initial 11 1/2 minutes of “Bails (Of Flesh)”. You can also hear “Longing (The River of Ash)” by jumping over to CVLT Nation.