First impressions are often a make or break endeavor. Job interviews, first dates, introductions to new people, that awkward first dinner with the folks-in-law…we’ve all had them, and we all know that they matter to some extent. Bands undergo a similar audition for our attention when releasing their first album to the teeming masses, and our willingness to stick with a band throughout their discography is often determined by our regard for their initial work. New York’s sludge-covered doom masters Unearthly Trance are no exception.
Their debut record, 2003’s Season of Séance, Science of Silence was a welcome blow to the head for the doom community, instantly cementing the band’s name as one to watch. Three additional albums and seven years later, the band released V, which reached a high watermark of their uncanny ability to meld sludge and doom elements into a churning swampland of oppressive sound and rhythm. Then, in the same amount of time that it took the band to create, produce, and release five excellent records, they vanished. No independent full-lengths, the band dissolved, leaving mostly just a whole lot of silence. Enter 2017, and we find Unearthly Trance’s new record Stalking the Ghost firmly in our clutches. Praise be to the metal gods.
For the uninitiated, Unearthly Trance’s sound has always traversed between worlds of sludge trudging, doom stomping, and a sonic aesthetic that lands somewhere between primordial, tentacled monsters lurking in the shadows of a swamp and giant rats fighting to the death in a dank New York City sewer. Think Conan with more speed and sharper teeth. Neurosis with a more sadistic snarl. Think huge, menacing, city-crushing doom pyrotechnics. Which is all fine and good. But our nearest point of reference regarding the band’s sound is nearly a decade past. So the question lingers: after such a long gap between records, would the band be able to maintain its nasty edge? Stalking the Ghost, thankfully, treads these well-worn paths of demolition with verve and violence, and the result is one of the band’s finest records to date, if not their most original.
Heralding back to first impressions, Unearthly Trance reintroduce us to their world with heavy hitter “Into the Spiral”. If you doubted the band would be able to return to their former level of menacing glory, consider yourself checked. As an opening statement, it is hard to imagine Unearthly Trance coming at us harder or more effectively. Riffs come roaring in a torrent of unusual speed (at least by doom metal standards) and viciousness as guitarist and vocal demolitionist Ryan Lipynsky growls and rails like a deranged street preacher. It is a bruising introduction that ends as abruptly as it begins, and sets the tone for the audio punishment the listener will continue receiving throughout the remainder of the record, though mostly in half-time.
Stalking the Ghosts opening fierceness evolves into abject heaviness over the next three tracks. “Dream State Arsenal” is an aptly-titled monster, unfolding in a swirl of feedback and eventually evolving into a molasses-paced juggernaut of sticky riffs and slow-burning tension that feels reminiscent of the band’s work on V. This track also sets the tone instrumentally, giving bassist Jay Newman and drummer Darren Verni ample room to bring the pain. Subsequent track “Scythe” continues in this vein of doomy mayhem with slow and grimy riffs with a depth and register that feels reminiscent of mid-career Neurosis.
Then we come to “Famine”, which may be the crown jewel of the album, and one of the better tracks Unearthly Trance has written. It is equal parts ferocious and contemplative, and is on the whole fairly unpredictable upon first listen. Growls dissolve into whispered reveries, mammoth riffs morph into quiet codas, all building to an absolutely gargantuan finale. It is peak Unearthly Trance, and exemplifies everything that they do so well. Also, let it be noted that the production chops of Colin Marston (of Gorguts and Krallice fame) are on full display throughout this release, as the album’s murky riffs manage a unique clarity that makes these tracks feel remarkably spacious despite being filled with such aberrantly oppressive music. It’s another notch in the belt of one of metal’s most talented producers.
The remainder of the album features almost impossibly quiet sections of guitar-picking and cymbal play (“Lion Strength”), to clean vocal passages (“The Great Cauldron”), and a six minute instrumental, spoken word finale that sends this album off in the sonic shade of rotting forests, hollow skulls, and slowly eroding cities. It is a perfect ending to such an evocative and destructive batch of songs.
That’s part of what makes Unearthly Trance so unique and special in the doom metal community: evocation. They aren’t bringing anything new to the genre in Stalking the Ghost. Frankly, they don’t need to. These songs evoke mental images, reels of internal film depicting scenes of darkness, chaos, musical monstrosities working their way slowly through the sewers of the mind. It doesn’t just feel like an album, but rather an experience. Something to be reveled in and enjoyed on multiple levels. Even the album art by Orion Landau paints a rich tapestry of sickly colored darkness and oppressive gloom that fits the music perfectly. Unearthly Trance have not simply returned, they have reentered the world as a rejuvenated and reenergized beast, hell-bent on inflicting musical mayhem and catastrophe. It may not be new, but it’s damn good regardless.
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Stalking the Ghost was released on February 24th, AKA New Music Friday 2017™. You can grab it from the band’s Bandcamp above.