By Matt Hinch
A sky burial is a Tibetan Buddhist practice in which the deceased’s body is left on a high plateau to be eaten by vultures and thus returning the body’s nutrients to nature. It sounds like a gruesome endeavor but since we Buddhists believe the “soul” has left the body leaving it an empty vessel, it is seen as basically no different than regular burial or cremation. (Although I might have a hard time convincing my non-Buddhist family to do this with my body when I take another.)
The concept of a sky burial aligns well with Sky Burial, the Relapse Records debut of Richmond, VA’s Inter Arma. While the sky burial may be a brutal and grotesque sight, there is an understanding and peace of finality in the ritual. Inter Arma’s Sky Burial can at times be brutal, in a monumental way, yet there is an underlying peace to be found within its frigid soundscapes as well.
Inter Arma’s strength is in the creation of mood and weight as referenced on opener “The Survival Fires”. Mammoth riffs rumble forth as if mired in tar, plodding ahead beneath a heavy burden of despair. Blackened, effect-laden vocals cry out with visceral anguish in hopes of an end to the torment. It’s an aural picture painted in varying forms throughout the album and gives the listener a feeling of monument, as if the gods themselves are responsible for the aggressive sounds and detached screams emanating from the sky. As all encompassing as they can be, Inter Arma often strips down to the acoustic level (“The Long Road Home (Iron Gate)”). This relays a decidedly Americana feel when accompanied by lap steel guitars. It’s not exactly melancholic so much as reflective and lamenting.
It all comes back to gigantic sludge in the end. The acoustics of “The Long Road Home” carry into its second part until the façade of acceptance ruptures into full-blown black metal destruction. Tortured screams of deep pain flay the skin from the bones after a soul rending passage which builds and builds upon stacked layers of guitars and desperately emotional soloing.
“Destroyer” is a reimagining of the same named track from their previous EP. Here though, that layering effect takes the track to a different level. Still droney and buzzing with energy, the track is extended giving the bellows and shrieks of a winged predator room to breath before a triumphant finish.
The most immediate track is “’sblood”. Intensely drum driven with straightforward riffing, it pounds the listener into submission. And when everything drops out leaving the guitar to its isolation, the effect is striking and possibly the best moment on the album.
The ominous sludge and slow-building doom of elephantine riffs that is the hallmark of Inter Arma continues with the stomp and easy sway of “Westward”. Acoustic serenity and haunting theremin embody “Love Absolute”, giving way to the album’s epitaph in “Sky Burial”. The closing track is packed with riffs. Steely, acoustic, massive, frantic and harried. The effect-heavy vocals cascade through the track as if from a distance, howling through the darkness. A myriad of emotion floods the listener in the form of the aforementioned pain and despair, trepidation and eventual catharsis.
At over and hour in length, it can be a challenge to get through but for those with the mental stamina to absorb all Sky Burial has to offer the reward is worth the effort. Beneath the roiling black clouds thundering amid the highest peaks, the process of death’s bodily finality plays out its bloody and peaceful last act. Sky Burial is an intensely powerful, emotional album best enjoyed as a whole. Open yourself to its pleasures and let it reside within you. Enlightenment is near.