A hugely anticipated album, Stygian Bough is the first time that the duo who make up Bell Witch have formally welcomed Erik Muggridge (Aerial Ruin) into the fold, after guest appearances on previous recordings. Bell Witch’s 2017 masterpiece Mirror Reaper graced top spot in many best of year polls, with them progressing from the more metallic edge of the first two releases, to a more ethereal and dark ambient vibe for long stretches of the single composition. Muggridge’s vocals in the latter part of Mirror Reaper made clear how important he now is to the overall sound of Bell Witch and meant many of us have been eagerly anticipating how this full collaboration would come out.
Stygian Bough opens off with a 20 minute epic The Bastard Wind. A gentle guitar build and Muggridge’s outstanding vocal range foreshadows the emotional heft that we’ve come to expect from Bell Witch. As the gentler side of the collaboration gives way to Dylan Desmond’s huge bass guitar tone the record really takes off with a crushing yet psychedelic mid-section bringing to mind early Pink Floyd recordings.
As is traditional with Bell Witch only the more patient listener will get the most out of these long songs, The Bastard Wind hitting a drawn out crescendo around 10 minutes in. Here we see, for the first time, the potential of this collaboration as the sluggish pace of Jesse Shreibman’s percussion, paired with the aforementioned huge bass sound gives all the space in the world for Muggridge to mournfully intone a tribute to the storm raging. Desmond, never to be hurried, lays down a closing riff that is only kept moving by the cymbals crashing all around. A fitting opener and a glimpse of what can be achieved by this singular outfit.
The middle section of Heaven Torn Low: The Passage and The Toll allows Muggridge and his guitar a greater profile as the amplification is toned down and leaves space for the acoustic guitar and whispered dark folk vocals that Aerial Ruin fans are accustomed to. Once again the slow pace allows for a heavily psychedelic edge, with strummed guitar reminiscent of some of the greats of 60s experimental rock closing the first part, The Passage, only to see a deafening return of amplified bass herald the second part, The Toll. This is the section of the record most reminiscent of Mirror Reaper, with all three musicians joining to create a piece that is glacial in both tempo and heaviness.
Bell Witch has always been how spacious their sound is, how they obviously feel no pressure to fill the void with extra noise and how that supports and enables their heaviness..
Track four, Prelude is just that, gently leading us into another epic to close the record. The Unbodied Air has nothing gentle about it, a big lumbering doom beast that will be ferocious live. My favourite thing about Bell Witch has always been how spacious their sound is, how they obviously feel no pressure to fill the void with extra noise and how that supports and enables their heaviness and this track embodies that. Shreibman seems to be holding the pace back, as squeals of feedback overlay with Desmond’s bass.
Shreibman also has a more central role vocally in The Unbodied Air, his death growls providing a counterpoint to the clean singing of Muggridge. Six minutes in the song breaks back down, out of the heavy distortion and back to the more familiar formula of slow build and immediately to a synth and organ led psych section. It seems somewhat incongruous on a funeral doom record but the lightness of touch shown here absolutely validates their decision. A menacing slide and bass drum and cymbal drive heralds a closing section, that is more progressive than traditional funeral doom, with all the constituent parts coming together to make for a very pleasing dirge that closes the album very fittingly.
This is an excellent piece of work and has shown that an already ambitious band still have a huge amount of scope to develop what is a truly extraordinary sound. They were due to play these songs live at Arc Tan Gent 2020, let’s hope we see them over here soon.
Scribed by: Ian M