First, a word on Sky Burial. There are two major world religions that have practiced this: Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. It is only practiced currently by Buddhism in Tibet and is known as jhator, or the giving of alms to the birds. Its environmental impetus is simple to understand – the culture does not have enough room to bury their all their dead (meaning that this and cremation are the two most common ways to handle the dead) and to keep vultures away from population centers. Its cultural ramifications are far more broad. Obviously, it serves as a means to honor the dead, whose living shells are now empty, represents impermanence, and is a final act of giving to other living animals.
Echtra, whose name comes from Irish myth regarding a Hero’s Journey in the Otherworld, is a Cascadian Black/Folk Metal band from Olympia, Washington. Introduced via Temple of Torturous as a drone focused band, I was certain that I was absolutely terrified by this album (as I’m not a massive drone fan). However, the teasing materials promised a sonic exploration of the dissolution of our mortal coil and the impermanence of our existence. Sky Burial is a two part album, consisting of two 23 minute length songs. It is the first release of this band’s Passage Cycle and seems the moments after death and the initial moments of the transformation of consciousness.
The album opens with a sense of falling before finding a plaintive, pensive tone in its acoustic guitar. This sound repeats and persists in fragility even when the scathing cold droning electric guitars sweep in. Equal parts reflective and mysterious and obvious and demonstrative, this evokes a curious dissonance of warmth and cold in their sound; a definite explication that the appointed hour has come and gone, yet that there is hope therein found. I write obviously about the first song here because I greatly enjoyed this composition’s first 11 minutes most of all. It really drives home those emotions that Echtra seems to be trying to find.
The keyboard adds a further, nebulous layer of sound that aids in the creation of solemnity on the album. The use of the deep, nearly throat singing style vocals crafts this into a hymn. All things here feel restrained wisely and there seems to be no missteps in the composition of the album and its intended point. It is cold and inevitable, yet warmth and approachable. It does not push death as something to be feared, but rather something that one must transcend.
Echtra’s efforts are reminiscent of Agalloch’s; however, unlike a number of the other bands whose efforts mirror this style, Echtra gets it. Sky Burial is a wonderful exploration of the intended themes and offers the listener a chance to enjoy and consider the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. At 46 minutes, it is not a lengthy listen and is wonderful chamber music, whose ambience and quality is one of the best I’ve heard this year.