There’s something to be said for slow. Slow takes its time working into your system. Slow is subtle, it’s insistent in worming itself into the folds of your pleasure center. Sure, it can also be damning — stuck for a musical idea? Hit one chord for an hour, throw some drums around it and turn the reverb up — you’ve got yourself some funeral doom. But I’m interested in the trick of the slow, deep dark: how something can lie in the background for days only to suddenly and without warning lift its grizzly head and swallow you whole. Because that’s what Stalking the Ghost, the new album by sludge/doom lords Unearthly Trance did to me, and I’m still trying to figure it out.
Ryan Lipynsky is one of those names that seem to reverberate throughout metal. Besides the tectonic shifts in Unearthly Trance he’s been involved in a number of acts including Thralldom, The Howling Wind and Serpentine Path. But Unearthly Trance is the main gig, and their brand of doom and sludge melded with more experimental leanings have been a critical smash since Season of Seance, Science of Silence emerged from The Music Cartel/Rise Above Records back in 2003. Over the next 15 years and 4 full lengths, not to mention numerous splits and EPs the band have honed their sound to a dull roaring pulse that turned so many on to their sound.
And now for the confession: Unearthly Trance have always been a bit of a thorn in my side. My first exposure to them was 2006’s The Trident, which at the time just wasn’t a sound I was into. Since then my taste for doom and sludge has evolved but the chaotic swirl of deep noise wouldn’t sink in. But they were a band I kept trying with each release, always devoting a few dedicated listenings before moving on to something else. But seven years is a long time since the world was last graced with music (2010’s V) so I sat down, put my headphones on and listened again. And again in the car the next day. And again the day after while reading. Something slow seeped its way into my conscious, waiting for me to dissect and understand what it was.
The easiest culprit is also the most misleading. Jumping out of the gate Stalking the Ghost feels like an entirely different beast based on the rock-inspired opener “Into the Spiral.” The stomp is a misplaced, measured burner, and Lipynsky’s vocals have moved into a cleaner bark/growl as he intones about ancient primordial evils. But the middle slowly backs away in a droning squall of feedback and carries you with it before punching back into the groove again. It’s deceptive, both more accessible and more in keeping with what Unearthly Trance have been doing for years now, but it was hitting me in a way the other records hadn’t. “Dream State Arsenal” trudges back into more doom familiar territory and is the crushing pulse of a beast rising from the another realm of existence. “Famine” feels like the standout track, slowly sifting waves of riffs carried along by the always exploring foundation laid by drummer Darren Verni and bassist Jay Newman. Stalking the Ghost closes with “Great Cauldron” which brings back the punch of the opener but stretches into Neurosis land as Lipynsky intones, “Swirling in the Great Cauldron / Meticulous, maniacal monstrosity” which really captures the overall sound of a band swirling secret ingredients into a dismal soup of doom.
In the end I don’t know what it is that finally made Unearthly Trance in particular click for me. Going back through their discography I’m finding hidden moments revealing themselves to me, but Stalking the Ghost just has something that pulled a switch in my mind. Maybe it’s the emphasis on straddling a line between what I’m comfortable with and what is new, the sense of experimentation, of seeing how weight affects the music. I don’t really know, but something keeps pulling me back into this record, and I’m guessing it’s going to make a lot of people who were on the fence for some reason stand up and take notice, even if they’re not sure why…