Bell Witch: Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate

Stepwise and slowly, Bell Witch have been forever approaching The Clandestine Gate, which is not only the Seattle duo’s new 83-minute, single-song album but also the first volume in a trilogy meant to loop eternally. A decade ago, the sans-guitar pair used bass and drums to make turgid but familiar doom, the dozen-minute songs of their debut, Longing, lurching toward glory. The follow-up, 2015’s Four Phantoms, felt epiphanic by comparison, its dual tandems of much longer and more radiant pieces seeming to reach skyward from hell, like Hieronymus Bosch enshrined in dual wheels of black wax.

The 2016 death of co-founding drummer Adrian Guerra only seemed to amplify the ambitions of bassist Dylan Desmond, as though existential urgency led him to slow down and stretch out even more. Mirror Reaper arced and ached for more than 80 uninterrupted minutes, the constant friction between its colossal parts tossing off radiant sparks. One of the longest metal tracks ever, it felt beautiful but conclusive. Where does a band with a single piece so long it’s split between two CDs go, aside from maybe the conservatory?

Bigger, retorts The Clandestine Gate. This sprawl opens with a mighty organ dirge, rippling like a massive flag swaying in a faint breeze. That is how Bell Witch’s proposed three-album cycle, Future’s Shadow, will also likely finish, the organ returning to reconnect the end to the beginning to form a cycle that actually has no ending or beginning. The Bhavacakra, the ouroboros, the eternal return: Desmond and drummer Jesse Shreibman lifted this pan-cultural motif from some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous works. As much as The Clandestine Gate is the culmination of Bell Witch’s last decade, it also marks the surefooted start of their next several years, the first step in a truly audacious and titanic mission.

Ceaselessness permeates these howled, groaned, and hissed lyrics, full of “recurring dawn[s]” and “arrow[s] loosed at forever.” Dark fades into light, life into death, on and on, again and again. But the more immediate and enduring result of this approach to infinity is structural. A small clutch of riffs and rhythmic figures thread through The Clandestine Gate, disappearing only to reappear in slightly warped form. The record is more orderly motel than sprawling mansion, a few motifs repeated through the maze of levels and hallways.

The Clandestine Gate moves in a string of interconnected three-to-five-minute segments, the larger piece always shifting subtly just before tedium sets in. Early on, it’s the way Desmond’s high bass notes begin to trace a careful filigree over Shreibman’s steady organ; nearly 45 minutes later, it’s the way distant monastic chants finally coil into death-metal growls, severing the reverie and sending it back to solid ground. These eternal returns are less about infinite lives and more about pedestrian repetition, or surviving social structures that often ask the same of us at least five days per week. An earthbound interpretation of Nietzsche, The Clandestine Gate sets up life as the ultimate endurance exercise.

Still, in spite of The Clandestine Gate’s modular design, any record this long and involved can feel intimidating. And despite its grandeur and volume, its real power stems from its subtlety; check out, and you’ll put in an hour of listening with shallow rewards. Take The Clandestine Gate on a four-mile walk someplace quiet and even boring, where distractions are nil. It only gets richer.

Notice the way the rhythm expands and contracts, with Shreibman and Desmond pulling close and spreading apart, improvising with patience and precision that seem telekinetic. This dynamic pace mirrors breath itself, slowing and speeding as the task at hand changes. When Desmond’s riff tightens, Shreibman often springs beneath him, his heavy hits helping lift the notes with a sudden heave. This sense holds for the textures, too. Listen for the way Desmond’s distorted basslines echo the bright, clean leads he picks out with the high strings above them. Or spot Shreibman’s faint synthesizer harmonies rising in the distance during the quiet bits, like miserable fog framing another gray morning.

All this proffers itself as a readymade punchline, of course. An 83-minute doom album that is actually the first third of a four-hour opus seems a sort of galaxy-brained terminus, the ostensible slag of two stony dudes sitting for far too long in some smoke-clogged rehearsal room, tossing off absurd hypotheticals. Its minimalism becomes not just maximalism but also mannerism, so far up the form’s ass it may seem hard for outsiders to peer in. But Bell Witch are blessedly self-aware, adding one second of silence to The Clandestine Gate just to make it longer than Mirror Reaper, then sharing a laugh in interviews about the ridiculous choice. They get that this is a lot, that most folks don’t have the space for four hours of doom about, well, being doomed.

But aside from the riffs that glide through the haze, that gumption is perhaps the best part of this entire enterprise—how entirely out of step The Clandestine Gate feels with most everything about how we consume culture right now. This is metal that may have made Pauline Oliveros proud, because its rewards demand you submit fully and listen deeply, to slow down and crawl inside. To wit, on streaming services, Bell Witch have not bothered to break this into bite-sized segments in order to make more money. It is one piece, meant to be played and heard without interruption. The Clandestine Gate is about our cycle of daily and perhaps even eternal toil, or how, as the last verse has it, “the down-stroking rapacious eye of doom” never turns away its gaze. This is an 83-minute break from that torment that Bell Witch hopes, two albums from now, may never end.