Collaborative albums don’t happen nearly as often as split releases between musicians, but the results tend to stand out more when they do happen. In the case of this year’s Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin album, the combination makes perfect sense as the two artists have been closely intertwined for years. If you’ve heard any of Bell Witch’s lengthy doom in the past, Aerial Ruin’s Erik Moggridge has sung on at least one track on each of their albums which brought a different tone to these passages. The resulting collaboration, Stygian Bough: Volume I, perfectly captures the elements of both individual groups while also giving off a different sound that proves to be utterly entrancing.
One of the first things worth mentioning is that if you go into this album expecting the same types of low-pitched growls and abrasive vocal styles of previous Bell Witch material you’ll be in for a bit of a surprise. While Moggridge contributed on specific songs or passages before, he’s been given the lead role here and drives the material forward with a much softer and ethereal pitch. Even when Dylan Desmond initially comes in on backing vocals he initially goes for cleaner ranges as well, providing a lower and mournful tone that gives off a very different feel than Bell Witch’s previous material. It isn’t until almost halfway through the nineteen-minute opener “The Bastard Wind” that the growls kick in, and even then they’re used sparsely as an additional nuance that highlights that particular instrumental section. This approach sucked me in early to Stygian Bough: Volume 1 as the singing has a haunting quality to it, as though you’re hearing long forgotten tales as you stare out over a foggy horizon. Since the Volume 1 in the title hints at more to come, I wouldn’t mind just a bit more interplay between Desmond and Moggridge as the two remain separate and often minutes upon minutes apart.
The instrumentation is where you’ll notice the biggest difference, as this truly reflects how much of a collaborative effort the music is. Where Bell Witch has used the bass in the past to give their funeral doom a much lower pitched and bottom-heavy sound, the infusion of Aerial Ruin’s acoustic guitar completely changes the mood. “The Bastard Wind” opens with a somber melody on the acoustic guitar that draws you in, letting the notes hover over the recording with a ghostlike tone before the rest of the band launches into their lumbering, heavy instrumentation. As you make your way through the hour-long effort you’ll find just as much run-time dedicated to sparser folk instrumentation, with the acoustic melodies adding some brighter flourishes amongst the dark and mournful doom this band is known for. Once the distortion kicks in the approach is classic Bell Witch, with the bass and drums supported by organ work that creates a thick atmosphere that threatens to choke the listener even as it moves along at the speed of molasses. While I have to admit that funeral doom of this type has often tested my patience and even some of this group’s previous material haven’t fully sucked me in, the move between the softer folk melodies and cavernous doom worked perfectly here and held my attention from beginning to end. Closing track “The Unbound Air” is truly stunning, as it reaches some majestic peaks where the organ and bass wash over you with a dark yet inviting tonality.
One of the first times I listened to this album a storm had rolled in and experiencing its haunting textures as rain pounded down on the roof felt fully appropriate. Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin have merged their two styles together in ways that naturally enhance their strengths, and with equal amounts of somber beauty and crushing darkness this album proves to be truly captivating. While funeral doom can sometimes lose me when its too methodical and molasses paced, the surprising warmth during the acoustic sections kept me focused and excited for what each track had to offer as it unfolded. With the potential for more volumes, there’s a lot to look forward to here and these three have set a high bar. Stygian Bough: Volume I is available from Profound Lore Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg
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