Deathbell – A Nocturnal Crossing Review

[Cover artwork by Adam Burke at Nightjar Illustration]

France’s Deathbell broke convention and tossed the idea of a sophomore slump right on its ass. Where 2018’s debut, With the Beyond, was a fine reiteration of Witchcult Today’s notion of contemporary doom, closer to Windhand than The Wounded Kings, Deathbell’s second tolling, A Nocturnal Crossing, improves on every aspect of it, bringing the band closer now to The Devil’s Blood and yet distinct within that sphere.

Release date: February 25, 2022. Label: Svart Records.
It’s the kind of doom that, if you let it, fits you with a hooded cloak and takes you to the dark forest where the blue edges and arcs of impermanent forms offer the only navigable signs in the moonless night. Big drums, resonant bass, and low strung guitars bring the big, slow, fat sound of doom that lends the air of foreboding, and then it’s rendered with that oversized fuzz that belies its heft with comfy warmth. Lauren Gaynor’s voice brings abiding balance with melodies that drift between invitation and ill omen. She is a wonderful storyteller and splendid singer who generates a slow burning intensity in telling mystic tales as if through smoke and blue flame.

Between the rhythm makers and Gaynor’s vocals lies Deathbell’s dynamic core comprised of guitarists Bastien Commelongue and Fredrik Bolzan. The latter was brought in just in time for the recording of A Nocturnal Crossing and his addition allowed the band to maximize the impact of their songwriting chops in ways that With the Beyond just couldn’t hold. In addition to two guitars, Commelongue and Gaynor both also play keyboards, which of course adds a layer of complexity that can sometimes sink the grandest ideas under their own weight. In this case, though, the band exercises an economy that emphasizes and optimizes the story so that each element provides its piece and no more at any given time. The result is beautifully ominous harmonies and counterpoint melodies between whichever of the melody makers tell a particular part of the story best.

And, yeah, sure that all sounds great, but great albums aren’t made of clever combinations of players and their instruments, no matter how nifty; they’re made of great songs. The songwriting, then, is what makes A Nocturnal Crossing a great album, by optimizing the impact of those combinations in service of the story. The keyboards are given more freedom not to showcase digital chops, but to bring a vivid array of sound – church organ and Hammond and choral vocal effects and more – each to color an aspect of the story in its own way. Production is full and rich and varied, not to impress with technical flair but to provide ample room for variation of mood, latent and expressive, within and between songs. All the aforementioned interplay between players and their instruments, not to garner spotlight but to elaborate and decorate and illustrate the story. And then, once again, there’s the addition of Bolzan’s guitar to Commelongue’s. On top of their interplay with the others in the band, they present as a finely forged alliance, affording more complex riff arrangements, more dynamic layering, and a bevy of melodic and harmonic leads coursing throughout like ribbons of ancient light magic, gossamer yet persistent against the enduring darkness.

I hope you were able to click play on that video and enjoy “The Ladder” as a perfect example of how Deathbell brings it all together, especially the last couple minutes where luminous keys permeate the gloom, Gaynor sings an eerie denouement, and Commelongue and Bolzan perform sweet synchronous leads over more than a minute to close it out. Just wonderful.

The completeness that makes “The Ladder” so great is evident throughout A Nocturnal Crossing, an album so thoroughly realized, it feels like Deathbell made it for the listener or, at least, invited them to participate in its making. What a credit to the songwriters, except there are no songwriting credits (to this writer’s knowledge). Then again, that seems perfectly appropriate, as it effectively credits the songs to the band. And A Nocturnal Crossing was recorded live, as if in recognition of that ceremonial act as a demonstration of Deathbell’s commitment to the sanctity of the band and, therefore, the art, and its relationship to the listener.

Posted by Lone Watie

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