Four figures stand atop a summit, staring east out over a vast, frostbitten wasteland, the black sun dwindling in the west, casting their shadows across the plain. They await another clan, legendary for their slow approach. Eyes on the horizon, searching, patiently, for some signal of the arrival, some plume of smoke that would announce that the time had come. At last, at the edge of the plane, they note a black banner, and soon two hooded figures appear in the dusk. A horn sounds, and drumbeats echo through the valley.
It’s only the threshold of the distant horizon that limits the scope of Terrestrials, but like much of Earth, its landscape is arid, only disclosing its secrets upon active contemplation of its component dust. From the opening strains, hidden at the foot of a vertiginous crescendo from zero decibels, the album recalls a technique of Andrei Tarkovsky’s, later developed in the films of Béla Tarr. The eight-and-a-half-minute opening shot in Tarr’s epic Sátántangó laterally tracks cattle carefully plodding through a dilapidated commune in search of food from muddy pasture. As the audience investigates the frame for clues to Tarr’s purpose, he slowly reveals to them a symbolic vision of the film as a whole, inviting contemplation of the rich surfaces of the decayed buildings and the labyrinthine entrapment of the commune’s inhabitant kine, some playing at leadership and some dragging their feet, cow and human alike awaiting deliverance by a dark messiah. Terrestrials proceeds in a remarkably similar fashion. As each track unfurls, its glacial pace arrests the listener’s search for novelty, forcing attention to the profundities of the mix and the texture that the interlaced sounds create; and yet it also deepens the desire for what each step forward promises, the crisis that the procession patiently unveils.
Terrestrials features more complex instrumentation than most of the works of either party. Sunn O)))’s deep bass and endlessly sustained guitar feature heavily on each track of Terrestrials, but so do Ulver’s electronics and a myriad of additions, including trumpets, didgeridoo, and strings. Although the tracks apparently began as a set of improvisations recorded at Ulver’s Oslo studio, the vast scope of the release clearly evolved out of the various mixing and arrangement sessions helmed by Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg and Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley between 2008 and 2012. Here they achieved a synthesis that stylistically transcends the mere combination of the two groups and their traditional pathways, with Ulver sealing up the cracks of Sunn O)))’s immense backdrop and heightening the atmosphere with tense strings, sculpted textures, and insistent rhythm. It’s this attention to the subtleties that renders Terrestrials monolithic; they ensure that each tick of the clock yields an array of sonic qualities, each progressing slowly in themselves but together moving the whole mass of sound forth at a constant click.
From the trumpets on “Let There Be Light” to the drum-like pound of the bass and didgeridoo in “Western Horn,” Terrestrials relentlessly heralds its own arrival, an endless parade slouching towards Bethlehem. By the time Rygg’s vocals enter at the middle of “Eternal Return,” the crawling pace of the album has ensured their sublimity. Taken on its own, this short section would scarcely justify a song unto itself; it emerges out of the sudden but carefully orchestrated resolution of the murky depths of the track’s recesses, manifesting as a piercing clarity and a distillation of the album’s theme of annunciation. Its lyrics, rich in spite of their brevity, conceal a messianic yearning in the fallow desert, a hope for deliverance from the stasis of the Egyptian yoke and the confusion of exile, and a dark prophecy of a “liminal animal” with “golden nature” of the sinful calf. Rygg urges us to “listen silent.”
Gongs or guitars ring out. This final stage of Terrestrials heralds a return of an immense mystery. What approaches, its lumbering gait constantly pressing onward, can’t divulge its nature until it finally arrives. The quintessential figure of doom is an immense behemoth, a force of nature whose sublime shadow conceals it from view even as its thundering steps reveal its impending advent. But here we lie in wait. Terrestrials delivers on its persistent promise by offering another transcendental promise of a future culmination. But the restraint they exert in their advance to the beautiful oasis at the center of “Eternal Return” suggests that, here, Sunn O))) and Ulver are more interested in the process as it happens through time, tracking the march of the sun across the heavens, marking each moment as it slips back into eternity.