Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin – Stygian Bough Vol. I (Profound Lore)

Friday, 24th July 2020
Rating: 9/10

This one stings.

That sentiment carries on a couple different levels – as a work of funeral doom Stygian Bough I is quite literally towering, a work built on the foundation laid by previous Bell Witch expeditions. Long-form works that move only in pained steps and only at glacial paces, Stygian Bough I shares much DNA with work the band has produced in the past, particularly 2017’s well-received Mirror Reaper. Expansion comes through the integration of Aerial Ruin’s Erik Moggridge, who provides the primary vocal presence across Stygian Bough I and provides an instrument ordinarily missing from Bell Witch releases – guitar. Unsurprisingly, it’s an easy fit.

As an experience Stygian Bough I stings for yours truly as it was expected to be played in live form at Fire In The Mountains 2020, which as I’m writing this would have gone down over this past weekend. Of course, in the grand scheme of the world as we have it in summer 2020, a cancelled
festival rates pretty low on the continuum of concerns – but what an experience it would likely have been radiating out across the open Wyoming sky.

So what is a listener to find across Stygian Bough I?

Though there is a remarkable flow across the five songs that constitute the album’s hour and change run time, it cannot be mistaken as a single, continuous piece – this is not Mirror Reaper II. The acoustic guitar that opens and underpins much of the opening of “The Bastard Wind” is a welcome addition, adding pleasing dimension to Bell Witch’s trademark take on funeral doom, and the acoustics gradually give way to starker, denser forms. Fascinating is the sense of resolution that comes in working with sub-20 minute pieces, which allow for a comparatively brief cycle of tension and resolution – cycles that are present in both the aforementioned opener and the closer “The Unbodied Air”.

The two part “Heaven Torn Low” is an exercise in opposites, with the acoustic and vocal-dominated first half “(the passage)” pairing well with the more traditionally framed heavy second half “(the toll)”. Notably, I was not particularly taken with the second half when it was released as an early “single” some time ago, as divorced from the other half and its place in the album sequence, it does not come across nearly as strong. “Prelude” offers exactly that, a moment of respite before the wailing finale comes to crush the listener completely.

Of course, if funeral doom does not appeal to you ordinarily, it is doubtful Stygian Bough will change your mind – these are slow burning, spiritually taxing works that require effort on the part of the listener to be enjoyed. With that said, oddly, it is also a surprisingly brisk listen and a wholly consuming experience once the listener gives in. Endlessly undulating waves of melancholy await beneath the surface of Stygian Bough I, what more could we ask for at a time like this?

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