Seattle-based duo Bell Witch are no strangers to lengthy track runtimes. The funeral doomsters last LP, 2015’s Four Phantoms, had comprised just four tracks yet surpassed the hour mark, but October’s Mirror Reaper took things to another level. Doom metal is a genre with a long history of prolonged compositions, but even within the realms of doom, Mirror Reaper was an exception, reaching an incredible 84 minutes.
Originally built around a single repeating riff, played over two movements (‘As Above’ and ‘So Below’), the album was designed to make a U-turn halfway through, playing darker versions of the album’s first half in reverse order, hence the origin of the title Mirror Reaper. The album’s theme was to focus on death, and the grey area between life and death, an endless purgatory. Tragically, though, the theme of death would play a more earthly role than anyone could anticipate. As frontman Dylan Desmond and sticksman Jesse Shreibman got underway with the creative process, founding member Adrien Guerra passed away aged 35. Though he and Desmond had split professionally, they remained close.
Bell Witch had always written about death, but now informed by a personal experience of loss, Mirror Reaper became not just the band’s most audacious release, but also an emotive tribute to a lost loved one, more poignant and cathartic than any of their previous works. A modern metal masterpiece, the album is sure to be considered the group’s magnum opus for years to come. Some would pass it off as over-indulgent, or as a release designed to test the patience of the listener, and there’s no doubt it would work reasonably well as a more commercially viable half-hour album. Instead, though, every riff plays out to its full completion, giving the release an unimaginably gargantuan scope.
Enthralled by its colossal size, we spoke to the duo about the creation of Mirror Reaper, and how they turned personal tragedy into a metal opus.
Did you set out to make Mirror Reaper one lengthy song or did it just materialise that way?
Dylan Desmond: Our original idea was to make two movements to one song, titled ‘As Above’ and ‘So Below’. From there, we toyed with the idea of making seven submovements based around the seven Hermetic principals. As the song continued to take form, our direction veered away from the seven movements and we started to see that everything would make more sense if it was just one track.
How much focus did you maintain on avoiding the pitfalls of creating one album-length song? How hard is it to avoid becoming monotonous or overly repetitive?
DD: No more than we did with a shorter song. In my opinion, the main challenge pertaining to the length of this song, on a large scale, was the extra amount of focus required regarding the subtleties within each section. With only bass, drums, and the organ at our disposal, we try to put a lot of attention into filling every riff out as full as it can be despite our limitations.
Jesse Shreibman: As the assembly and creation of the song continued into the finishing process, we really had to focus on continuity in terms of the overall sound and tone of the album. The hardest part in my mind was placement and use of vocals and making sure they weren’t overused. We also did not use a lot of riffs. In fact, we didn’t use almost a half hour of riffs that we were originally planning on using in this song!
To what extent did founding member Adrian Guerra’s tragic passing affect the composition of Mirror Reaper?
DD: I think it ultimately made us attempt to make the song a more grand endeavour. It would have felt like we were letting him down if we didn’t put all of our attention and focus into it. While the song wasn’t originally being written for Adrian, various aspects of it took on that role as time passed. We wanted the song to honour him and his memory to us.
JS: Adrian’s passing gave us an unexpected break in the writing process to allow grieving. This break gave us time to really reflect on what the band meant to both of us, and what we wanted to accomplish with this album. I believe that when we came back together to work on the album, there was a sense of importance and severity that was not there before. We both felt that we needed to not only honour him, but also do something he would have been proud of.
When writing for one long track, do you find you have to expand your horizons sonically in order to keep the release interesting? If so, is this the source of the album’s increased melancholy and meditative psalm-like quality?
DD: The approach and structure aren’t all too different than any of our other songs, save there being more material within it. Jesse adding the organ to the song brought out a lot of texture that hasn’t been present on the previous albums. Likewise, this album has a fair share of a noise track the runs throughout it being utilized. We took pieces of it to make a lot of textures fill out where a live performance would have feedback from the amps.
To what extent did you take inspiration or guidance from doom metal’s history of lengthy songs (e.g. Dopesmoker et al)?
DD: In my opinion, Corrupted are the masters of the long song in heavy music. ‘El Mundo Frio’ in particular is a song I’ve always admired. I appreciate the uniqueness of it in the instrumentation, the composition, and execution. I wouldn’t say we were taking guidance from anything in this regard though. While I would say we’ve always taken stylistic guidance from bands like Worship, Mournful Congregation, Skepticism, and Thergothon, we weren’t looking to any other long-form songs to pull inspiration or guidance from.
JS: There have been so many “long songs” in the history of music that one could be influenced by. I have always been a huge fan of compositions over “singles”. I don’t really think we took any guidance from long songs in the writing of this album, however, mainly because we never were planning on writing one long song. It happened organically over time without much deliberation. The thought only really crossed our minds once we realised we didn’t write an album with multiple songs. I honestly feel like Mirror Reaper is more closely related to classical compositions than long songs in heavy metal.
Mirror Reaper seems to be as challenging musically as it is conceptually/emotionally, is this purposeful?
DD: While we weren’t trying to make an album nobody could stand listening to, we weren’t trying to write one that was particularly easy. I appreciate music that challenges me emotionally and intellectually. I don’t particularly dislike music that’s easy to listen to, but I often find it unauthentic and likewise easy to let go of. The harder one has to work for something they want the more they will appreciate it when it’s been obtained. I want to write music with that in mind.
Is creating such a monolithic sound tough with only two members?
DD: In some ways, I think it’s a more effective approach than a band with three or four members. I’ve been in several of those and often times they don’t practice at all because of conflicting work schedules. One ego alone can be difficult enough to handle, not to mention four. With only two members, we’re able to meet up more often and musically communicate ideas through less filters.
JS: I think there is an inherent challenge in writing with two members, if for any other reason than there are only two brains at work. However, what is so cool about writing as a two-piece is that we both can express the entirety of our creative energy into the music. In larger format bands, people end up getting shut down more than encouraged in a lot of cases. This is done to leave room for others’ creativity. The most intriguing part of this band, in my opinion, is trying to push the limits of what two people can do at one time.
You’ve previously mentioned how the ‘as above, so below’ adage influenced the album’s theme, could you expand on this?
DD: Our intent was to make a theme of duality. The original idea was “As above, so below”. As the song progressed, the theme of the mirror was getting incorporated into the lyrics a lot more and the song structure reflected it. This all fit into the scope of the axiom, but it seemed like the mirror was a more solid object to reference.
How have you found the reception to the release so far?
DD: I’m surprised at how many people appreciate it! We expected a lot of coldness at the idea of the song being so long, not to mention so slow moving. However, since the record has been released we’ve received a lot of emails from folks describing losing loved ones to suicide, disease, accidents etc. I met a man at a show the other night who told me his wife had committed suicide earlier this year and that listening to this record, and Four Phantoms, have been a method he’s used to be introspective and process what he’s feeling. It’s quite a humbling feeling to hear that something we’ve put together has been a tool to someone else during such a monumental point of their lives.
JS: The reception of this release has felt surreal. I think it is so humbling that in a time when attention spans are deteriorating, people are not only giving this album a chance, but seemingly are enjoying it.
What can we expect in the future from Bell Witch?
DD: We’re looking to start working on new material this winter. I’d like to find another band, maybe a two piece without a drummer, that we could do a collaboration with sometime in the future as well. There is a fair amount of touring we’ve got lined up for 2018 also!
Mirror Reaper is out now on Profound Lore. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr