Nothing’s bigger than life. All vastnesses — expanding space, infinite time — crouch inside of consciousness. On a historical scale, to say nothing of a cosmic one, the individual human life vanishes, and yet it’s the only aperture any of us get into reality. It’s barely there, and it’s all there is.
That’s the paradox Bell Witch drives at. For more than a decade, the Pacific Northwestern doom metal band has sent tides surging over the seawalls of the song form, unraveling conventional expectations about the ways music stations itself in time to absorb a listener’s attention. Rather than seek catharsis, the duo’s songs heave themselves through time at a glacial pace, staving off resolution in favor of a trancelike capsule eternity. Invoking both boundlessness and claustrophobia in the same charged gesture, Bell Witch cultivates a sense of time outside of time, an oasis inside an increasingly frenetic media culture.
For their new album, The Clandestine Gate, bassist Dylan Desmond and drummer Jesse Shreibman exploded Bell Witch’s bounds. Like 2017’s lauded Mirror Reaper, The Clandestine Gate is a single 83-minute track — a composition that pulses and breathes on a filmic timeframe. It constitutes the first chapter in a planned triptych of longform albums, collectively called Future’s Shadow. “Eventually, the end of the last album will be looped around to the first to make a circle,” says Desmond. “It can be continuously looped, like a day cycle. This would be dawn. The next one would be noon. The following one would be sundown, with dawn and sundown both having something of night.”
Bell Witch began tracing the sequences that would form Future’s Shadow in live performance while on tour with Neurosis and Mono. At first, Shreibman and Desmond planned to release each chapter in the sequence as they completed it, touring each album in between. Then, in early 2020, pandemic restrictions forced them to step back from that timeline. Locked out of their rehearsal space, they worked on what would become The Clandestine Gate at a slower burn than any of their previous projects. The album germinated over the course of more than two years, a pace that allowed their music to evolve organically to a state of more focused, grounded minimalism.
While traces of organ and synthesizer hovered over Mirror Reaper and Bell Witch’s 2020 collaboration with Aerial Ruin, Stygian Bough Volume 1, The Clandestine Gate drew those instruments closer to the center of its compositions. “We started experimenting with letting more of the elements shine on their own,” says Shreibman. The band reunited with their longtime producer Billy Anderson as they began negotiating these new compositional weights. The record begins with an eight-minute organ passage that builds slowly, like the susurrations of dawn, before Desmond’s distortion-choked bass cleaves it open. Throughout their new material, Shreibman and Desmond also took the opportunity to implement new vocal strategies. “I wanted the vocals to be more active, rather than being on top of the soundscape,” notes Shreibman. On The Clandestine Gate, Bell Witch’s twinned voices build off of the chantlike textures of previous records while steering toward more developed melodic lines, structured harmonies, and rhythmic death metal growls.
The expansive scale of Future’s Shadow gave Bell Witch more leeway to plumb themes that have long percolated throughout their work. The concept of eternal return — that time doesn’t end and death doesn’t punctuate life, but both go on forever in an infinite loop no one can remember — inflected the development of The Clandestine Gate after Desmond encountered the idea in Nietzche’s book The Gay Science. “I read the eternal return concept and was like, ‘oh, yeah, all of our songs have been about this all the while,” Desmond says. “Anything could be applied to a cyclical point of view. The sun comes up every morning. Spring comes every year, winter comes every year. Everything has a cycle: a life, a death, an existence, a non-existence.”
The films of 20th century Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky similarly supplied a framework for the movements of The Clandestine Gate and Future’s Shadow as a whole. Tarkovsky’s movies creep glacially, powered by the performances of his actors, which imbue his weathered landscapes with a tumultuous interiority. Simple actions — carrying a candle across a room, tossing a metal nut into an overgrown field — carry life-and-death weight, a strategy echoed in Bell Witch’s suspension of minimal melodies across planetary expanses. “Tarkovsky’s intention of poetry through visuals has a strong parallel to ours through sound,” notes Desmond. “His drawn-out scenes are similar in execution to what we’re doing musically, and his films are a big inspiration for this album and triptych.”
The immense gravity of a work like The Clandestine Gate allows these ideas to simmer in a way that feels profoundly and somatically intuitive — not just a philosophical exercise, but an embodied truth. By slowing down both their creative process and the tempo of the music itself, Bell Witch digs even deeper into their long standing focus: the way life spills on inside its minuscule container, both eternal and fleeting, a chord that echoes without resolution. As both the beginning and end of the Future’s Shadow triptych, The Clandestine Gate opens a new chapter in Bell Witch’s macroscopic minimalism: the start of a yawning orbit around an increasingly massive core.