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Album Review: Terra Sancta’s “Exile”

Nearly ten years later, this album is still a masterpiece.

As this semester draws to a close, now is a good time to reflect on some of the songs and albums we’ve listened to while cramming for exams and pulling all-nighters to finish final projects. I’ve listened to many dark ambient albums to keep me focused, and many great albums were played while preparing a history paper, or another Slides presentation. One album, however, has consistently stood out to me among the rest: Terra Sancta’s “Exile” released in 2014 under Malignant Records.

This album is one of the greatest dark ambient albums of all time, and since dark ambient is my favorite genre, I would call it one of the best albums of all time. Outsiders to the genre may not see its appeal, but I would encourage you to give “Exile” a listen and see for yourself. You may be surprised at what you interpret from it. For those already in the genre, you would be familiar with, and readily appreciate Terra Sancta’s style.

Malignant Records logo.

The album begins with “Empire of Ashes,” a song that slowly but steadily builds tension. Terra Sancta’s style of sound gives me the feeling I’m watching sand being blown over a desert landscape at night, just as the album’s cover implies. Perhaps there are some traces of civilization left, like the phone pole on the edge of the album’s cover, or perhaps it’s just an illusion of hope. Either way, we are immediately told things are not right.

The album quickly follows with “Kingdom of Dust,” with a transition so seamless I thought “Empire of Ashes” was still going the first time I listened. It feels less like the second song, but more like the second part, building tension and immersing us in this album. Hearing this song is like listening to dust fly over graves. We investigate further, wanting to find out what went wrong, and this song entices us onward, to whatever horrors await us.

The third song is “Celestial Extinction,” featuring Rasalhague. This song has higher notes and some melodies that sound almost like instruments, but not completely. The change in pace and uncertainty makes it very alien, as if you are in a place entirely unrecognizable. It feels closer to other dark ambient songs, enough you could call it conventional. Perhaps it will give you the illusion the album’s tone is improving. However, the next song breaks it.

Image of Rasalhague via Peek-A-Boo Magazine

The fourth is “The Desolate Land,” which we have felt throughout this entire album. “Celestial Extinction” felt like whatever we were witnessing was during the day, while this next song implies night has fallen and we are lost again. This song intensifies the soundscapes from “Kingdom of Dust,” where instead of feeling a breeze there is a roaring windstorm, blowing dirt and sand everywhere, obscuring our vision and leading us further into doom. The song is the album’s event horizon, and once it is crossed there is no return from what lies in store for us next.

The fifth is “Descent II,” a follow-up to the song “Descent I” from a previous release. The night is getting even darker, and there is no comforting moonlight to guide us. The sounds in this song feel heavier and deliberate, an excellent way to increase the tension even more. The landscape itself is now seemingly out to get you, and you try to escape, but you cannot find one. At the halfway point, another soundscape is reminiscent of rain or a mist falling, but it is not the cool, wet mist we expect. It is hot and choking, and it strangles us of all remaining hope.

The sixth song is “Vanishing Point,” which is once again a seamless transition from “Descent II.” It builds on all the nihilistic tension and fear to a dramatic climax. This is the best song in the album, and has an apocalyptic tone. When listening I picture some cataclysm like a superstorm or a volcano destroying the landscape, while the last few minutes are of the sun setting on a planet devoid of all life. The last couple minutes also feature rapping on metal or drums or some other object, I cannot tell which, further reinforcing its message of doom. The monsters of this world found us, be they alive or not, and we are theirs. We went too deep, and now we face the consequences. All vanishes, and we are lost forever.

Image via Terra Sancta on Discogs

The final song, “End Path,” is a short epilogue, and it calmly pulls out of the ghastly world Terra Sancta pushed us into. It maintains the brooding soundscapes similar to “Empire of Ashes,” but has a lighter, more ethereal tone, similar to “Celestial Extinction.” It gives me the feeling I am literally being lifted away from the horror and the fear that dominated the previous songs. Perhaps instead, this song is from the perspective of another observer, one that is looking at our corpses and wondering what went wrong.

I highly recommend “Exile” to all dark ambient fans, and even regular ambient fans for that matter. If you are interested in an album off the beaten path or one you will almost never hear on the radio or in top song lists, check this one out. It will be a journey you will never forget.