Friends, here is an incomplete list of things for which I have a wafer-thin patience:
– Fascist apologetics
– The patriarchy
– Typos and grammatical errors on businesses and in ad copy
– Anthrax (the band)
– Anthrax (the illness)
– Man-buns on non-samurai
– The calculated, cynical, and overwhelmingly successful effort to orchestrate a politically convenient erosion of trust in science, facts, and expertise
– Sludge metal
Although they only tick the last of those boxes (and barely, at that), one might expect New York’s Unearthly Trance to be a hard sell. And yet, despite many superficial similarities with the bloated torrent of riffless, characterless, dead-weight sludge that has thrown a hapless wrench in the gears of heavy metal for much of the past fifteen years, Unearthly Trance succeeds wildly at every point where so many others fail flatly.
The primary reason Unearthly Trance is the connoisseur’s choice in modern sludge-hued doom is the same thing that ought to be tattooed on all four of the cracker foreheads on Mt Rushmore: it’s the riffs, stupid. Ryan Lipynsky’s guitar riffs (often doubled with perfect trunk-rattling scuzziness by Jay Newman’s bass) are omnivorous, pulling in bits of Sabbath swing, classic sludge causticness, hardcore punchiness, pinches, bends, stutters, and whatever else might be needed to get the damn job done. The trio of Lipynsky, Newman, and drummer Darren Verni has been stable across all six Unearthly Trance albums, and their chemistry is evident in the locked-in groove and sympathetic instrumental interplay.
Although it has been seven years since the last Unearthly Trance feedback, it felt in some ways like the band never quite left. Its members have been incestuously active across a number of other projects throughout UT’s lifespan, including Thralldom, Villains, Serpentine Path, The Howling Wind, and Force & Fire. Nevertheless, much like the Zeitgeister camp has increasingly come to feel like a river delta fed by the headwaters of Valborg, Unearthly Trance feels like the Ur-expression of this nexus of bands, which makes their proper return all the more worth celebrating.
Unearthly Trance often uses noise, distortion, feedback, and other unsettling ambience, but it never feels tossed in to cover for a lack of ideas. On Stalking the Ghost, some of the sprawl and experimentation of their previous album V has been reined in, but compared to the dreadfully dull albums the trio made with Electric Wizard’s Tim Bagshaw as Serpentine Path, the band has thankfully let more than a little of their excellent weirdness to creep back in. Lipynsky’s vocals occasionally drift into sparse clean passages that call to mind Neurosis at their most contemplative (see “Into the Spiral” and “Lion Strength”), but for the most part, his vocal attack is direct and bilious. Particularly notable is early album highlight “Dream State Arsenal,” where the main riff harnesses guitar bends to achieve maximum swagger while slipping into a powerful conclusion, with Lipynsky’s snarled “Death is but a dream” sounding nearly convincing.
Stalking the Ghost doesn’t pull out quite as much Celtic Frost stomp in its riffs as UT did on The Trident and Electrocution, but the album is something of a comfortable midpoint between nearly all their albums. While the album’s first four songs are all relatively punchy, the back half gives itself some space to wander. Nevertheless, everything remains tethered to the riff. The solo at the tail-end of “Lion Strength” is simple but perfect, given how it launches itself from the hugely swaggering bounce of the drums and bass, and while “Invisible Butchery” is likely the album’s low point, that’s due more to being superfluous than committing any real offense. “The Great Cauldron” winds the album down on a high note, riding a surging, twitchy riff that is eventually augmented by organ and purposeful doom drops. True album closer “In the Forest’s Keep” is a mostly mellow comedown, a largely spacious and ambient piece with guitar, muted drums, crackling flames, and a spoken word coda. Although inessential, it confidently escorts the roiling pulse of the band back to the background noise from which it first swelled.
All told, there’s little new ground broken here. But with a band as consistently excellent as Unearthly Trance, that kind of holding pattern is as much a quality assurance stamp as it is an accusation of listlessness. Call them sludge if you must (note: please don’t), but the fact remains that there may be no one out there making a better version of this particular sort of racket. Find the riffs you thought were only a distant memory, and let them succor you.