Those who appreciate the clean singing on Bell Witch‘s past few albums have Erik Moggridge of Aerial Ruin to thank. The neo-folk artist’s contributions to the Seattle funeral doom bass-and-drum duo’s sound trace back to 2012’s Longing. He also played a substantial role in Bell Witch’s 2017 magnum opus, Mirror Reaper. A full-blown collaborative album appeared to be inevitable. In fact, the three musicians began brainstorming what would become their first outing as a trio two years ago. Presented now as a five-track exploration of life, death and the in-between, Stygian Bough Volume 1 seamlessly bridges the musical gap between Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin.
The trio swan-dives into its full potential with the 19-minute opener, “The Bastard Wind.” The sprawling odyssey’s progression from shamanistic acoustics to crushing doom metal couldn’t be more seamless. These two extremes complement each other by meshing together tastefully. Moggridge’s rapturous singing explores the plight of a wayward soul stranded in the sea of purgatory, as his acoustic guitar gives way to Dylan Desmond’s minimalist bass arpeggios.
Bell Witch’s signature heaviness crashes in like a wave as drummer Jesse Shreibman pushes the tempo with explosive fills. Moggridge’s electric guitar and Desmond’s two-hand-tap bass technique mine tearjerking motifs, amid dirge-like baritone singing and abyssal growls. Still, the true climax comes with the return of the acoustic intro riff in full funeral doom splendor. Complete with sweeping crescendos and a bewitching bass solo, this song already feels like the album’s peak—but these guys are just getting started.
Folk-oriented tracks like “Heaven Torn Low I (the passage)” give more credence to Aerial Ruin than Bell Witch. But make no mistake, the duo plays a role no less vital during these softer meditations. The former finds Shreibman’s synthetic ambiance and light percussion filling out Moggridge’s moving guitar scales and dense lyrics. Moggridge’s vivid and obscure depiction of the dichotomous, cyclical relationship between life and death is compelling in its own right, while the instrumental “Prelude” displays his chemistry with Bell Witch. The song’s gorgeous symbiosis between organ, bass and guitar solidifies this tightly knit musical unit.
Centered on a repetitive morose drum and bass riff, “Heaven Torn Low II (the toll)” maintains the most of its Bell Witch counterpart throughout the arrangement. Moggridge integrates his singing into the ultra-heavy proceedings, coming into his own as a lead vocalist. Emotive melodies and eerie organ drones come off like Candlemass in slow motion, adding potent soul to a seismic and glacial progression. The three musicians know when to pull back and when to take the reins, working together with heartfelt intent. This pays off spectacularly on engrossing closer “The Unbodied Air.”
Even longer than the first track, “The Unbodied Air” opens with an earth-shattering doom metal ritual. Desmond’s and Moggridge’s distinct voices commingle as naturally as their respective instruments. Guitar and bass trade solos and breach new harmonic thresholds, making for some arresting buildups and tempo boosts. And yet, the song’s midsection still drops to a hushed and reverent liturgy before the album approaches its final culmination. “For broken and dismayed the rivers rise/ Cast ashore to where the balance has decayed/ For delay will only stoke the lies,” Moggridge sings as a eulogy for those afflicted by the mortal coil. The album ends in grim yet beautiful serenity, regal in its forlorn austerity.
Taken as Bell Witch’s followup to Mirror Reaper, arguably the funeral doom equivalent of Sleep’s Dopesmoker, this collaboration with Aerial Ruin exists on a different playing field. Moggridge adds an entirely new dimension to Desmond and Shreibman’s style, and vice-versa. Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin’s shared fascination with walking the line between life and death joins their polarized sonics in an enriching folk-doom excursion.