Dylan Desmond, singer and bassist of Seattle doom metal duo Bell Witch, has been singing about the dead since the band started. "It is always ghost stories," he says. The band's ambitious new album, Mirror Reaper, is a more haunting story than the kind often told around campfires. The record is both the band's most daring composition and a loving tribute to the group's former drummer and growling vocalist, Adrien Guerra, who passed away while it was being composed.
The story behind Mirror Reaper (which is out via Profound Lore on October 20) began in May of 2015. Desmond and Guerra had just returned home from a small European tour culminating at the Netherlands' lauded Roadburn Festival, and their then-new second album Four Phantoms had just been released. Inside the band, though, tensions ran high. Guerra's escalating alcohol consumption was driving a wedge between him and Desmond. "We hit a hard wall," Desmond says. "I told him fix it or I would move on. Adrien didn't want the band to continue without him, but we had just released a record, we had booked tours, we had momentum."
Guerra's biggest advocate at that time was Desmond's housemate, Jesse Shreibman, who at that point was drumming for grindcore band Transient. "Whatever issues that were happening, I was trying to solve them," says Shreibman, who had become a valuable sounding board for the band after serving as their tour manager and co-habitating with Desmond for years. Ultimately, the rift proved too wide to bridge.
"I was enabling [Adrien] and I felt responsible," says Desmond, who parted ways with Guerra and then asked Shreibman to play drums in Bell Witch. After much deliberation and a heart-to-heart conversation with Guerra, Shreibman took his place behind the kit (and microphone). Bell Witch 2.0 immediately began composing their new record.
Desmond and Shreibman began brainstorming a two-part song built around a single repeating riff, its movements titled "As Above" and "So Below." At the halfway point, the song would double back on itself, playing darker reflections of earlier sections in reverse order (hence the title Mirror Reaper). Bell Witch played sections of the composition during several tours, fine-tuning it as they went; they found themselves rearranging riffs to make room for new ideas, like Shreibman's adding a foot organ to the band's instrumentation. All the while, Desmond worked on composing his newest ghost story.
"The song is about something that is in the gray area between death and life," Desmond explains. "Its body is dying, but it is still conscious. It's saying 'make this purgatory stop. Have mercy.'" The track reflects on mortality and represents the transition from life to death. In a stroke of tragic irony, Desmond and Schreibman would be faced with a personal lesson in loss before the song itself was finished.
On the evening of May 17, 2016, Guerra passed away. He was thirty-five years old.
"He went to sleep and his heart stopped," says Desmond, who remains in contact with the drummer's family. Though he and Guerra parted ways professionally, Desmond only speaks of Guerra in glowing terms. "When he passed, everything took a dark turn. He was our friend," he says. "When he died, there was a lot of stuff being said about him on the internet and it was so positive. People loved him. It was hard not to love him".
"I've had too many friends of mine die," Shreibman adds. "I was incredibly surprised by Adrien's death. It was a real jolt. We were not best friends ,but we were friendly. I saw him two or three weeks before he died and we hugged each other at [Seattle punk bar] Captain Black's and said 'I love you, man.'" Guerra's passing nearly derailed Bell Witch. For some time, Schreibman wondered if it might be disrespectful to sing Guerra's parts, and considered retiring all early Bell Witch material. "I was worried about Dylan and the people who are really close to Adrien. It put a stop in our progress for a month or so at least."
In the end, Guerra's passing galvanized the band. Shreibman opted to continue playing earlier material, and the band booked more shows. They put their creative faculties to the test in writing Mirror Reaper. "We agreed that if we were going to go on it had to be something remarkable," Shreibman says. Bell Witch didn't realize how remarkable the scope of Mirror Reaper was until they assembled its tour-honed pieces for the first time January of 2017—and timed the first run-through of the song at seventy minutes. The track was long enough to fill a whole compact disc, but too long to fit on a single LP without losing audio quality. Desmond and Shreibman weren't expecting the track to be half that length. "We had no idea it was that long!" Desmond tells me. "Jesse didn't even think we had enough for an LP!"
And the song still wasn't even complete at that point in time—the ending had not yet been written . Bell Witch returned to Portland, Oregon to finish the song with Billy Anderson, who had also produced Four Phantoms and would engineer and mix Mirror Reaper. As Desmond and Shreibman worked on finishing the song, it became clear that certain sections referenced Guerra.
While Desmond wouldn't say that Guerra is the focus of the song, since it was partially written before his friend passed away, he admits that in the studio, the recording took on a shade of his grieving process. He dug through scratch recordings from the making of Four Phantoms and found samples of Guerra's voice to incorporate into the new song. "If we could somehow catch him up on what we were doing with his voice, I think he would be floored," Desmond explains. "It would make him so proud. His family said the same thing. I asked them for permission, and they were right on board."
If every Bell Witch record is a ghost story, then Guerra is the literal ghost around which Mirror Reaper evolves. "It's the center of the record when we use his vocals, that's when the flip happens," says Desmond. explains, "And that's also the point between life and death. He would be even more proud of it because of that, I think."
The band also reunited with longtime collaborator Erik Moggridge to work on Mirror Reaper's beautiful final movement. Moggridge performs as a solo folk musician under the name Aerial Ruin, but has contributed guest vocals on each Bell Witch record. His section of Mirror Reaper responds to its long instrumental introduction; as the song reaches its climax and Shreibman's drums come to an abrupt halt, Moggridge's voice fills the sonic space—then slowly retreats. "In absence he flies," Moggridge sings in direct reference to Guerra.
This is Shreibman's favorite part of the song. "I like things to end the way they begin," he tells me. "That end is the last little breath of relief." In the end, the ghost that Desmond has written and thought so much about finally crosses over.
Together with Guerra's ghost, Desmond and Shreibman have made the remarkable record they knew they had to create: a memorial for their departed bandmate, as well as an ambitious doom metal album that pushes the genre to its compositional limits. Mirror Reaper ends the first chapter of Bell Witch's story, but opens the door for a second. "The fact that this was our first shot at making an album together is a good indication that we are able to do a lot, and our sound is still developing as a band," Shreibman says. "I don't know if we're ever going to write an 82-minute song again, but there's still a lot of creative juices flowing."
Schreibman refers to the almost twenty minutes of unused Mirror Reaper pieces, including the section performed at Basilica Soundscape 2016 in New York. He and Desmond plan on finishing that material sometime after they perform the album in full with Moggridge at 2018's edition of Roadburn. It's unclear what Bell Witch's next musical endeavor will sound like, considering how much the band has expanded their sound in the last two years, but Desmond promises one thing: He will always tell ghost stories.
Joseph Schafer is spelling doom on Twitter.