Sky Burial is the third-full length album from atmospheric black metal/folk/drone group Echtra, who hail from Olympia, Washington. The record, which is composed of two twenty-three minute tracks entitles “Sky Burial I” and “Sky Burial II,” forms the first instalment of a conceived trilogy of albums entitled The Passage Cycle. Each of these three records will deal with “sloughing off the mortal coil” in some way, and the transition from one state of being to the next. Echtra is a solo project, all elements performed by the eponymous multi-instrumentalist, though Echtra is joined by guest musicians for rare live performances.
The word “Echtra” is an old, pagan Irish word for journey of adventure, and particularly a quest that takes the traveller to the Otherworld, or realm of the fairies. It is a journey that involves not only moving from one state to the other (our world into a different world), but a process of transformation, as passing into another mode of being can’t help but change us. This is also how Echtra frames the way the idea of death is explored throughout Sky Burial, as a profound change or transfiguration, but certainly not a permanent end. This is mirrored in the title of the record as well: a sky burial is a type of funeral wherein the body is ritually dismembered and fed to carrion birds, thereby buried in the sky.
The first track on Sky Burial is an exploration of liminal space, a shuddering, delicate in-betweenness. While the guitar lines are characterized by a warm pliancy that trembles between coaxing and pleading, there is an insistence behind them, a slight threat to the energy in which they are played, that evokes a tiny whiff of black metal ash. It’s as though the blackened influence is present in the structures and the feeling infused into the piece, but the way it is played is much more supple and folk-inspired.
“Sky Burial II” is buzzier and more aggressive, with harsher guitars, more distortion and a much bleaker tone. This is where Echtra earns it’s drone label, as the tracks whips itself into a growling maelstrom. By the six-minute mark, however, it cools considerably, bringing back some of the brighter, more verdant elements, allowing meltwater and sunlight to penetrate the bracken and ice. It surges at the end, again becoming more aggressive, but carries the hopefulness that welled up in the centre along with it.
The vision of death that Echtra presents in Sky Burial can certainly be grim and even frightening, but ultimately the transformative element and travels through the unknown, are portrayed as something not to be feared but greeted with a sense of adventure and courage. The music is cinematic and engaging, leading the listener through an internal journey. As the first part of the Passage Cycle, Sky Burial has certainly piques my curiosity for the next instalments.