Four Phantoms: sludge as trudge in four parts

Bell Witch, Four PhantomsProfound Lore Records, PFL140, CD digipak (2015)

The four phantoms referenced by US funereal death doom band Bell Witch on their second album are the elements of Earth, Fire, Water and Air in that order, those substances once believed by mediaeval alchemists to constitute the building blocks of the universe and hence of all life on our planet. Except that on this album, these elements are heralds and instruments of death and gateways to everlasting emptiness.

Earth leads off in “1. Suffocation, a burial /I. Awoken (Breathing Teeth)” and appropriately for the most dense and physical of the elements the track is very glacial in pace and very repetitive for the most part. The music is distinguished by its restraint with depressive and melancholy lead guitar solos, emphatic and thick riffs, and continuous grinding bass. The vocals are either subdued death metal growls or distant clean voice swathed in echo. The sombre mood is the most important part of the long track though listeners may well wish the music could have been cut in parts as there is so much monotony. The next track “2. Judgement in Fire / I. Garden (of Blooming Ash)” promises more … well, fire as this is the piece that focuses on Fire … with awakened guttural roar and a more malevolent brooding mood. Clean-toned singing is clearer and less shrouded in reverb and the instrumentation is more melodic and clean in texture. Apart from these differences the music turns out to include far less fire and more of the earlier lumbering solemnity that defines the band’s style. While this is not a bad piece, it sounds rather like a cleaner continuation of the first track: not exactly what I expected of an album with the themes it has.

“1. Suffocation, a drowning / II. Somniloquy (The Distance of Forever)” invokes Water as the agent of death but again aside from the lyrics there isn’t a great deal to distinguish the track from the others. The singing provides a clean contrast with the booming guitar drone and the melody is quite pleasant in parts in spite of the gloomy subject matter. Much of the track though is tortured drone guitar booms and watery clean-voiced singing both solo and chorus.

By this time, suffocating under the weight of unrelenting doom drone monotony, listeners feel the need for air and Air it is in the last track … air of eternal cold howling winds as the lyrics state … but which is not reflected in the music which is as groaningly heavy and sluggish as in the previous tracks. There is an interesting melody about halfway through which unfortunately the band doesn’t carry for long, else it could have defined the music and provided the album’s saving grace.

After over an hour of solemn trudge and not much else, I don’t feel particularly enlightened by this quartet of songs meditating on death and what may or may not lie beyond. Listeners might be forgiven for thinking that an album based on the concept of Earth, Fire, Water and Air as messengers of death should have more variety of style, pace, emotion and atmosphere than what appears here.