Bell Witch Put on a Mesmerizing Endurance Test in Toronto

Trinity-St. Paul's United Church, October 22

With Völur and Spirit Possession

Photo: Katrina Lat

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Oct 23, 2023

Heading to church for Sunday service isn't usually worthy of reporting; millions of people around the world perform this ritual every week. But when you're standing at the church doors behind a group of long-haired young men in patch-adorned jean vests baring the blasphemous names of artists like Leviathan and Bathory, Sunday service quickly becomes an exercise in profane juxtaposition.

Such was the scene last night at Trinity-St. Paul's United Church and Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts, where a group of black-clad denizens gathered to experience Bell Witch, doom metal's preeminent long-form experimentalists. Named after a legend from Southern folklore that tells of a malevolent shapeshifting entity that afflicted a small Southern community in the 19th century, the band has released four full lengths of crushing, creeping funereal doom. On Sunday, they arrived in Toronto in support of their latest effort, Creating Future's Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate, an 84-minute opus that is merely part one of a three-part cycle.

For their Toronto show, Bell Witch and their two support acts — locals Völur and Portland's Spirit Possession — were set up in front of the church's towering pipe organ, which gave the evening a decidedly otherworldly air. It was fitting for a genre rooted in performativity and pageantry, yet it never felt gimmicky. Instead, the booming acoustics of the church gave the music the necessary atmosphere and oomph that most of the city's concrete rooms unsurprisingly lack.  

As the lights in this striking and wholly unexpected venue dimmed, light electronics bubbled through the formidable speakers. Draped in robes and made up of a droning violin, a thunderous bass, and pounding drums, Völur's blackened doom mixed dark imagery, quiet-into-screeching passages, and an air of mysticism. A fittingly spooky opener, the band's compositions employed elements from Eastern and Celtic folk traditions, and these subtleties lent their music — and performance — a sense of romanticism, uplifting the gloom often perpetuated by doom metal.

Lit red by a glowing mound between them, Spirit Possession unleashed a torrent of tormented, corpse-painted black metal influenced by all your favourite Scandinavians. As a drums-and-guitar duo, the acoustics in the church rendered their sound somewhat thin, especially when compared to the bass-foreword tones of the other two bands, leaving a simultaneously shrill yet muddled impression. There was a lack of dynamics in both their sound and their songwriting, and all the trills, pick scrapes and blast beats in the world can't change that.

Bell Witch's sound can best be described as cavernous. It is punishingly slow and heavy and requires a degree of patience that borders on the masochistic. This is said with the utmost love and respect — metal needs bands like Bell Witch.

The band's compositions are sprawling, swirling affairs, and for this tour, they chose to play an abridged version of "The Clandestine Gate," the lone track from their latest album. This allowed for the generation of a very specific tone and atmosphere, which permeated every corner of the room. The "concert" became a journey — a cyclical, almost cinematic experience rich in effect and melancholy.

Bathed in blue light, the band — made up of bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond and drummer/vocalist Jesse Shreibman — emerged and launched into their headlining set with little fanfare. As the opening organ strains emerged, it felt as though the sounds were coming from the monolithic pipes behind the band. Looking closely, you could see Shreibman tapping the mesmerizing sounds out on a pedalboard organ, which he continued to play throughout the show. He also triggered numerous keyboards and samples, and growled through the extended middle section, all while pounding on his formidable drums.
Throughout the show, shimmering, watery visuals were projected over the pipes of the organ, drawing eyes to the massive instrument that appropriately stood centre stage. Its curved tubes obscured the ghostly images, rendering them incomprehensible and grotesque.

For just two people, Bell Witch make a godly amount of noise (pun intended), and the band deftly moved through the various sections of "The Clandestine Gate": growls, chants, gongs and bells, light electronics triggered by Shreibman and Desmond's booming, double-tapped six string bass reverberated through pews and spines and up to the rafters. In this setting, it becomes impossible to check out from Bell Witch's music; your eyes, ears, and body subsumed by the unrelenting beauty unfolding around you. It is complex and challenging, a corporeal, embodied experience that rattles you, and seeing it unfold live is a very different beast than listening alone on a walk or through tinny headphones on the subway. 

But it was no easy feat surviving the hard church pews, with the required penance manifesting as shooting neck and back pain. People got up and left without returning. One person laid down in their partner's lap and covered their ears. Others closed their eyes, swayed, headbanged slowly, and bowed their heads onto clasped hands, as if consumed by prayer. Even in the quietest moments, when a single held note reverberated from the stage and slowly dissipated, the congregation sat in silent reverie, mesmerized by the two motionless musicians and their obscured projections. This was our passion, and there was something (un)holy and transcendental about listening to this music in this space.

Riveting and intimidating, seeing Bell Witch live is not simply a musical event: it's an endurance test, a marathon of sound and vibration for both the band playing this piece night after night and the audience taking it all in. Yet even though it lasted for over an hour, this experience felt ephemeral, a fleeting glimpse into the dark, existential subconscious of our clandestine condition.

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