What’s this? A newly formed U.K. trio drawing comparisons to Wolves in the Throne Room? Releasing an untitled debut with Roman numerals for song titles? With cover art that’s a cross between Fen’s Epoch and Wolves’ Celestite? Let’s see here… yep, I’m flaccid. Look, I loved the Cascadian/post-black metal craze, but let’s be honest: that bubble burst at least two years ago. After the umpteenth Wolves worshipper appeared (Addaura, Alda, Ash Borer – need I move past the ‘A’s?’), the mystique wore off and the music turned predictable: riffless ‘atmospheric’ guitars over indecipherable vocals, drab post-rock interludes feigning sophistication, and climaxes consisting of soaring two-chord phrases over ‘organic’ blastbeats. Repeat for 40 to 50 minutes, slap a tree on the album cover, and watch the blogosphere blow its collective load. Sure, this musical inbreeding produced a few fine offspring, but it got old. No surprise the biggest names jumped ship: Deafheaven with their Pitchfork-approved indie-blackgaze on Sunbather, Altar of Plagues’ electronic-embellished final album, and Wolves’ entirely ambient Celestite. Point being: for Terra, my expectations were low.
…and maybe that’s why this blew me away. Terra aren’t atypical for this style, they just utterly master it while overcoming the usual pitfalls. Openers “I” and “II” are veritable tours-de-force: ‘best-of’ collections of vast earthy riffs and sorrowful Fell Voices melodies, hoisted over pulpy rumbling basslines and crackling with natural, lively drumming. The aesthetic is entrancing – but not because of excessive repetition or contrived woodsy atmospheres. Instead, over 10+ minute runtimes, the riffs morph subtly from twisted drones to airy uplifting progressions to driving emphatic chords, never truly climaxing but steadily building on each other as if ascending to some unseen foggy summit. Take the solemnly triumphant, vaguely Celtic riff at 4:35 in “II” – it’s incredible, sounding like something from Highlander. After just the right number of iterations, a few notes are stripped as it masterfully settles into an atmospheric variant of itself, leading into the song’s serene second half.
Throughout, the tempos shift fluidly between commanding mid-paced beats and passionate blasting that recalls the au naturale performance on Plagues’ Mammal. Typical? Maybe. But Terra’s musicianship and intricacies (like the thumping-heart bass drum buildup in “II”) are convincing, and the band skillfully breaks the ‘acoustic interlude/blasting climax’ formula. “I” and “II” almost sound improvised in their execution and arrangement, flowing naturally as a stream of gripping moments. Check the starlit-forest melody that breaks the opening drone of “I,” hearkening to Agalloch’s Pale Folklore with its meditative simplicity; or the heart-wrenching lead at 8:00 in the same song, recalling Weakling with its profound sense of longing. Likewise, closer “III” features empowering final minutes with its driving rhythm and churning spirited riffs, while the winding guitar lines in the opening minutes of “II” feel as timeless and pristine as a cherub running naked beneath an ancient waterfall (…don’t ask).
Vocals are scarce, emanating as distant anguished rasps or wounded-animal howls before fading seconds later. There’s no real annunciation (making me doubtful there are lyrics), yet they enhance the transcendent atmosphere regardless. Equally so for the production: both dense and cosmically spacious, every element is surprisingly audible (particularly that lovely, full bass guitar and the airy, splashy cymbals) and breathes with a refreshing, unencumbered openness.
Sadly, not all the positive attributes of “I” and “II” carry through. The culprit: closer “III.” To be fair, on another record “III” would be a fine song, but joined by two flat-out flawless counterparts, it makes the album’s second half noticeably weaker. It’s repetitive, somewhat predictably structured, and lacks the gripping riffcraft of its predecessors. At over 16 minutes, it’s also emptier and drawn-out, and while the final storming minutes before the droning outro are engaging enough, the mid-song leads feel too much like lesser variants of earlier ideas.
That aside, Terra is still the most promising Cascadian-style black metal group I’ve heard recently. Refreshingly free of pretense, this record distills the style’s best traits into an aesthetic that’s both richly layered and accessible, sounding like Wolves with better musicianship or Fell Voices with better production. If this were a two song EP, it would be one of the best complete works this scene has yet produced. Even with a lagging final half, this is a beautiful and accomplished 41-minute debut that affirms this style’s legitimacy beyond washy atmospheres and background environmentalist static. We may have to wait until next time for the stars to align – but when that happens, I can’t wait to hear what comes of it.