Mirror Reaper (2017)
Profound Lore Records
In a recent interview with Richard D. James the artist describes the perpetual lack that comes with the constant access to the object(s) of our desire, as well as the sense of homogeneity that results from globalisation’s spatio-cultural flattening: the holy grail for a music fan, I think, is to hear music from another planet, which has not been influenced by us whatsoever. Or, even better, from lots of different planets. And the closest we got to that was before the Internet, when people didn’t know of each other’s existence. Now, that doesn’t really happen. If, with the internet, there is no longer an other to hear ‘new’ things from, and if all the obscure synth and noise and Memphis tapes of the past have been found in every attic and basement and ripped and archived on defunct music blogs, and for lack of extraterrestrial record stores/streaming sites, everything is bound to sound in one way or another familiar, then we are left to either keep pushing our imaginations into the unheard sounds of space (a novel decision making for future retro-futurism), or to re-examine and pick away at what we perceive to be familiar. Any fan of Black Sabbath and Melvins can tell you that this second approach is a popular one with lazy artists. It is as though these fragments of genre have been scattered throughout the world, and group after group of artist-archaeologists are finding them and bringing them to us as though they aren’t just making photocopies down the road. It’s disappointing, depressing even, to conclude that the picture we have is complete. Bell Witch very much approach what they do with a similar methodology, but the difference is that they take as much as they give- we never listen to a Bell Witch release and think this is novel!, but neither do we think we’ve reached the end of something. Rather than providing (fake) new pieces to the puzzle, they challenge us that maybe we could look at or feel what we think we know in different ways.
Mirror Reaper asks this question of form as it asks of human experience- we all know grief, but is grief always the same? We can say and maybe spell the word, we recognise it in fictions, we know it’s everywhere, but unless it invades our lives and breaks our routine we glide over it like it’s a word and that’s all. Bell Witch don’t offer an unorthodox take on genre or grief, they instead call for a moment of meditation to break the dismissive flow of the listener’s life; to re-feel and re-examine what we take for granted. The record is nominally and visually divided in two parts, As Above and So Below– both eschewing gratuitous spectacle and aimless metaphysics alike for Real-Poetic grief. (It should be noted that we are describing the visual and musical aspects of the record at the same time- Bell Witch are better at building landscapes than most, and the album art is if anything a visual guide that comes after the fact). The above side leans on the romantic sublime’s sharp contrasts in scale to trigger simultaneous wonder and horror in the audience, while the second follows suit but also removes the ground from beneath their feet. In employing this well established language Bell Witch strip away everything that does not need to be there, and in leaving only what matters, give a presence to what is left that is crushing while the piece itself is left quiet, spacious. It probably does not need to be said that when entering a landscape we (consciously or unconsciously) imagine our own bodies in various places in the frame (hence the comfort of high angles, tranquil waters, and nearby trees in Picturesque works), and it is with the sublime that artists reveal pleasurable dis-comforts: majestic and beautiful things that are more significant than us and could even do our bodies harm (jagged cliff faces, raging waters). We die in a hundred ways whenever we enter a sublime artwork.
A reaper stands back from nameless, faceless masses chanting their way towards hellfire and a humanoid monster roars and wails through knotted bloody fabric. In the reaper’s small frame and compositional prominence (the bottom left corner answering diagonally to the monster, always always pointing up and out, to the infinite) we defer to the masses, and on seeing the uniformity of their suffering we scale the smooth gradient of the nearby hill to a campfire. We want to spend time here. It has been put here just for us. Nobody else is going to challenge us for this spot. From this campfire we can look around and get a better sense of what is happening. We can stay here as long as we need, it’s okay, but we know what has to happen. This is the beginning of things. The chanting and roaring below are now marching to a drum. A sunset gradient, the most warm and comforting colour-range, has been perverted. The space between the reds of the sun and the teal of the sky has gone from dusky to corporeal; a fog of human dirt. Worse still, rather than feeling as though magic hour has been captured forever, we feel the present rapidly descending into night. A sunset never lasts long enough and it’s when we’re left standing out there that it feels like the night will go on forever. It’s past twilight here- the last bits of warmth are in the mirror or back by the hilltop fireplace. The So Below side removes any ground for the listener to stand on and this makes us feel as though we are falling. No campfires, no hilltops, no warmth. The artist renders this side in blues, with a placid ocean marking the horizon line at the bottom fraction of the composition. We feel ourselves falling, but we know we’ll never fully plunge into its cold waters. The terrifying beast all taut fingers above lets the dead go as birds into the Whistler-ish night below.
In Gnostic thought as above, so below is used to describe how the micro and macrocosm are interconnected, how we’re made of profane and celestial bodies. Again Bell Witch are not the first to connect the two in suffering, and if anything it might seem peculiar that in experiencing Real Death, they have found consolation in such a picture. Chris Bell questioned the existential limits of belief in I Am the Cosmos forty years earlier- if I am the cosmos and you are the cosmos, if the earth and heavens are the same, then how can it be that I’m standing here alone and unable to see you. A hundred and thirty years before that Catherine Earnshaw proclaimed in a landscape that echoed the lives of those that lived within it If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it, in the same monologue issuing a typology of natural symbols that hardly settle her anxious heart despite their proximity and human resemblance. During the Protestant Reformation, the Iconoclastic Fury saw the destruction of religious icons on the grounds that material bodies cannot at the same time be celestial, leading to expressions of faith and suffering through depictions of nature- new figures of speech designed to evoke rather than depict, to carry the viewer’s feelings to what cannot be seen. This is the horror and beauty of the sublime. Mount Eerie declared in the same year as Mirror Reaper that with Real Death, all poetry is dumb, and all signifiers point only to themselves when grief enters the house. Real Death kills even that Protestant-Romantic picture. Then in Earth a year later the same narrator struggles to keep poetry dumb, to read nature’s indifference as callous, to see bodies as carrion signifying nothing, to imagine eroding into eternal muck. It is no longer viable to maintain this materialist anti-poetry with the realisation that the magic symbols and natural phenomena, the dreams and myths and (indeed) poetry are returning. But this doesn’t mean that things will always nor should ever progress in this way, because grief is always different.
Richard D. James had a point about access, desire, and homogeneity, and there’s a whole series of dissertations needed for that, but he was also explaining why his latest piece fundamentally could not sound as alien as his earlier works had back in 1992, and how in lieu of that he’d made something more emotional and exploratory with relatively terrestrial textures. Similarly Bell Witch don’t want to pretend that they’re fixing doom, or even offering up any new pieces. They target that lack in James’ picture, descending into its absence, slowing down and concentrating on what we feel is there. Doom metal is as elemental as folk, if not in form then in nature, and a language for addressing what we’ve always had to confront which is death and loneliness. Bell Witch don’t bother looking for new planets when we’re still here with the same fears as always. Mirror Reaper believes in tying art to reality, not necessarily for art-as-therapy, but because the two inform one another. Its loss is Real, but it recognises the magic in natural phenomena, as well as the dreams, myths, and ghosts that come and go from our heads and linger over our shoulders. As above, so below, but the picture is never complete, and Bell Witch will always make sure it stays this way. They work in ghosts and echoes because grief is never the same. All the poetry in the world is never going to bring a person back, because to say that something below is another thing above just means that there’s a glimpse or an echo of that person; never a full picture, and never anything substantive enough to hold onto and squeeze. That’s the limit of the poem- that we’re stuck here writing poems, catching echos and reflections, and they’re somewhere else. Just as we die a hundred different ways inside a sublime artwork, we grieve as many ways as we think of those we’ve lost, and if the artwork is good, as many ways as the artist-world cares to express. And it makes the world more painful, but it makes it less lonely too.