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Album Review: Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper

It’s the season. The light is receding, the temperature is dropping, and the decorations are going out on the lawn. It’s Halloween, a sacred holiday dedicated to all things spooky, frightful, or otherwise scary. And what could be scarier than the prospect of reviewing a massive, 83 minute platter of funeral doom? Reviewing a massive, 83 minute platter of funeral doom consisting of only one song, of course. Bell Witch, for the uninitiated, are one of underground metal’s most exciting bands. Beholden to no trends, signed to no major corporate label, and completely foreign to even the notion of accessibility, all Bell Witch want to do is play doom. Not the video game, mind you, but funeral doom. Massive, haunting, soul-sucking funeral doom. Mirror Reaper, the band’s third full-length, sees them at their most morose. And get this: not only are Bell Witch only a two-piece unit, they achieve such suffocatingly dense music without the use of guitars. Just a drumset, two vocalists and a hyper-distorted bass, and on Mirror Reaper, an organ makes an appearance as well. It’s a formula that shouldn’t work, yet has produced nothing but winners so far.

The story behind Mirror Reaper is a tragic one. In 2015, after the release of the monumentally fantastic Four Phantoms, Bell Witch’s drummer and vocalist Adrian Guerra passed away at the age of 36. For some bands, especially a two-piece operation, this would mean the end. But Dylan Desmond recruited Jessie Shriebman as his new drummer and backup vocalist, and set about writing the most ambitious piece of music in the band’s history. Now, two years later, Mirror Reaper stands as a monolithic tribute and final sendoff, and even features some of Guerra’s unused vocal takes from Four Phantoms. I won’t beat around the bush – a single song spanning almost an hour and a half, and a funeral doom song to boot, is an extremely risky proposal, but Mirror Reaper is an unequivocal triumph, and stands as one of the greatest artistic triumphs of the year.

A testament to this is the fact that the album doesn’t feel nearly as long as it really is. When I first heard it, I was surprised a whole 83 minutes had passed when the song ended. This can most likely be chalked up to the album’s pacing. Mirror Reaper cycles through various tones, vocal styles and moods throughout its runtime, but no one section ever feels like it’s dragging it’s feet, and when the band shifts gears, it feels natural. These shifts in mood also serve to keep the album interesting throughout its immense runtime. Desmond’s harsh moan is heavier than it has ever been, but the clean vocals–either Desmond’s or those of frequent guest vocalist Erik Moggridge, since the album credits don’t specify–have plenty of room to shine as well. The band switches between harsh and clean singing frequently enough that I never had the chance to grow tired of either. I’m also happy to report that while Desomnd’s voice has always conveyed a sense of loss and unease, the clean vocals have never been the strongest. However, on Mirror Reaper, the cleans sound much stronger, and the album benefits from it.

The overall mood on this album is that of grief and loss. Just as these feelings come in intense, painful waves, so too does Mirror Reaper barrage you with waves of abrasive, harsh riffs. Even when the album allows its listeners to regain their breath with a minimalist bass solo, there’s a sense of longing that never quite lets you go. The reason for this is simple: Mirror Reaper is the sound of losing a friend. When the departed Guerra’s vocals make an appearance, however, there is a noticeable shift in the song. The music takes on an almost… hopeful tone, without ever losing any of its heart-wrenching remorsefulness. I take this as being the light at the end of the tunnel for Bell Witch. Though they lost a close friend and talented musician, they cannot and will not be stopped from pushing ahead with their already bright career.

If I wasn’t sold on the album after the first 81 minutes, it’s the final two that got me. The world of Mirror Reaper ended not with a bang, but a whimper. As the album draws towards its conclusion, the music becomes more and more stripped-down, until it feels like it’s just you and Dylan alone. He leaves listeners with these final words before the album fades, quietly, to black: “We will rise.” As I see it, everything about what Mirror Reaper represents is summed up in that one, final line. It implies that the band are at a low point, but it also promises that things will get better; that there’s hope amidst the gloom. Like the title implies, Mirror Reaper is a reflection of where the band is at, and what the future holds for them. Artistically, it is an untarnished masterpiece, and though my policy is to never give out perfect scores until I’ve given an album a few years to stand the test of time, I’m certain that Mirror Reaper is an album I’ll be telling my children about, and will still be listening to decades from now.

You can find Mirror Reaper at Profound Lore Records’ website.

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