Bell Witch - Four Phantoms
It doesn't happen all that often, but ‘Difficult’ to listen to albums – ones that balance making me want to run away with a desire to stick around – are the best. There’s plenty of albums I find difficult with a lower-case d. Those albums dripping with mediocrity, worse versions of worthwhile records, most power metal. I find these difficult because they don’t move me, stimulate me or interest me. Albums with the elusive upper-case D include, for me, Meshuggah’s Catch 33 and Sunn O)))’s Monoliths and Dimensions. On my preliminary listens, these records continued to confuse me but I knew that there was something special to be unearthed from both. There was.
Bell Witch’s sophomore effort Four Phantoms typifies the capital D for doom, depth, despair and most of all, difficult. For something as sparse as Four Phantoms (the band rely purely on a six-string bass guitar, drums, and dual vocals), it’s about as claustrophobic an affair as you could dream up. Emotionally, this thing is damaging – pure and simple, and after its sixty minutes are up, you can be sure that part of you will be taken away with the last of its ringing notes. With everything churning away almost exclusively at 30bpm, this is slow even for doom metal, but like all great pieces of art, adjusting to its tempo and its vision is crucial. It’s the reason why we don’t teach young kids Hamlet. It’s Shakespeare’s best work (let the arguments commence) but it takes an age to read or perform, and is virtually action free. In a world infatuated with instant reward- no thinking pop music - Bell Witch stand tall with a violent and processional ‘fuck you’, instead staging a play of their own – a true Greek tragedy for modern times.
And it’s this sadness, this honest emotional weight, which gives Four Phantoms an overwhelming, timeless power. Each song here represents an eternal death borne of an element; Earth, Fire, Water and Air. The spirit is the narrator, guiding us through the story of each track and offering a human voice to sit alongside the crushing instrumentals. There isn’t much in the way of vocals but the plaintive, eerie chanting alongside sparse death growls and wretches paint a vivid picture to accompany the musical trauma. The third song: Suffocation, A Drowning II – Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever) is especially notably for an Erik Moggridge guest appearance (alongside being a contender for song of the year) where his vocals really take Bell Witch’s vision to new heights. He brings an almost folky allure to proceedings with a memorising delivery which works especially well over the clean sections.
It’s quite tough to pin down this album as anything other than excellent, moving music – although the genre war is being waged, as ever, all over the internet. To me, Bell Witch combine the best elements of a droning Sunn O))) album with Ride the Lightning-era Metallica melody writing. Cliff Burton’s meditative basslines are evoked all over this record and the band dial up the sadness and intensity considerably to create something quite unique. Four Phantoms, through its strong melodies, is nearly accessible, yet is pulled in the opposite direction by its crushing weight and monolithic speed. This, for me, is where brilliant albums are born – in the space between the familiar and the unexpected, an album which we have to learn to love and understand. A very nearly perfect record and what is sure to be the standout doom album of 2015. Haunting.
Words: Ben Armstrong
Listen to and purchase Four Phantoms here - https://profoundlorerecords.bandcamp.com/album/four-phantoms