Unearthly Trance Is Born Again

Listen to the cult NYC doom trio's ominous new album, and find out why they're back (and what they're smoking these days)

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Feb 23 2017, 4:00pm

When Unearthly Trance first summoned their blackened brand of thick, syrupy doom at the turn of the millennium, the genre wasn't nearly as popular as it is today. The NYC-based trio slogged through the next decade with plenty of underground acclaim but little to show in terms of wider renown or cash remuneration. After five albums and a few fistfuls of EPs and splits, the members—vocalist/guitarist Ryan Lipynksy, bassist Jay Newman and drummer Darren Verni—pulled their own plug and decided to focus on Serpentine Path, the doom-death outfit they'd recently formed with British expat and former Electric Wizard member Tim Bagshaw.

Fast-forward to right about now, and Unearthly Trance are back in the apocalyptic saddle with Stalking The Ghost, their first new album in seven years. Out on Friday via Relapse Records, the disc features a particularly dark and bludgeoning set of tunes packaged in a distinctly Sabbath-esque sleeve. But the doom landscape that Unearthly Trance is returning to is vastly different than the one they entered in 2000—and even the one they left in 2012. "When we first started out, nobody liked us," Lipynsky says from his new pad across the bridge in New Jersey. "They thought we were just horrible. But now this is an accepted form of music that gets press, there's tons of bands, and it's a really thriving scene. It's changed a lot since we split up, too. There's a real overabundance of mediocre bands, in my opinion, and that's one of the downsides. We'd rather be our own entity than part of a scene or a genre."

Stream the album in full below, and read on for our conversation. Lipynsky spoke with us about smoking too much weed, the importance of dreaming and why Unearthly Trance have been born again...

Noisey: Why did Unearthly Trance split up in 2012?
Ryan Lipynsky: We just thought we didn't wanna do it anymore, so we stopped. In retrospect, it's clear that we just needed to take a long break. We were a band for 12 years and we never really took a break, and being in a band for a long time takes its toll on people. Some people get burnt out; others get frustrated when everyone's not on the same page. It just becomes difficult, and I think that's where we were at—it was fun for no one. We were over it, so we said, "Let's just stop this."

Your situation was unique, though, because you continued playing in Serpentine Path, which is everyone from Unearthly Trance plus Electric Wizard refugee Tim Bagshaw. How do you negotiate a situation like that?
[Laughs] Some of the issues we were having were specific to Unearthly Trance. It was mostly business stuff. Things cost money; we lost some money; there are band expenses. When Serpentine Path started, we looked on it as a side project that we were just doing for fun. We didn't expect that we would put two records out on Relapse. It wound up being really easy for that to happen, so we just went for it. But at first it was a really stress-free situation because I wasn't steering the ship. I just had to come in and do some vocals. I didn't have to deal with all the business and running the operation. So when Unearthly Trance broke up, we didn't see any reason to break Serpentine Path up.

Was there a specific moment or reason that made you want to get Unearthly Trance back together?
Me and Jay always talked about it in a hypothetical way, like, 'It'd be fun to play those songs again.' It was very casual—it was never something we wanted to push, ever. So we sat on the idea for quite a while until we thought the time was right, instead of saying, 'Hey, Darren—let's go back to doing two bands at the same time with the same people!' It's just too much of an obligation to do that. But as time went on, we missed Unearthly Trance and wanted to play again. Then Serpentine Path kind of ran its course for a while after the second album, so Jay and I started talking about it again. Darren took some convincing, but once we started playing again, it was like we never stopped.

Did you plan on doing a new album at that point, or did you just want to focus on playing and not worry about writing or the business side?
We wanted to start the whole thing up again, but do it the way we want to do it—and be smart about it. We also wanted to work with Relapse again because starting over from scratch would've been really hard. They know we have a good track record so when we told them we were back, they were like, 'Yeah, let's do it.' Knowing they had our back was definitely a good thing, but I don't think we focused on writing new stuff at first. We just put together a list of our songs to see which ones we could still play. So it was for our own personal enjoyment at first, but it grew from there.

Why Stalking The Ghost?
I think it works on a few different levels, but I always see it as being symbolic for us—"the ghost" being our band, the beast we created. It's always been haunting us, but at the same time, we started stalking it, trying to find it again. We've always referred to this band as its own entity, like it has a life of its own. And it grew in ways that none of us anticipated, which drew us back in.

Your lyrics can be pretty depressing. Do you see them that way?
[Laughs] It's weird, because people always tell me that they seem really dark and depressing, but I don't see them that way. This time around I think they're more abstract, but it's definitely continuing in the style of lyrics I've always done with Unearthly Trance. If you've followed us for a while and know the early records, you'll definitely see the connection to words in older songs and concepts we've used in the past. I think it's done in a more artistic way, though. I used to care more about, 'What does this song mean?' Now I just do it and let it go where it takes me. But the concept for this record is about starting things again, even though it's always been there.

One song title that really jumps out is "Dream State Arsenal." What was the inspiration behind that song?
To me, that song is really about subconscious thought and the consequences of actions that come out in your sleep. It's about arming yourself for this subconscious battle that goes on while you sleep, when you're not even aware of what's going on. For me, the song represents the connection to the subconscious and the unconscious current that flows through life. The "Arsenal" part of the title is about being prepared for that which challenges you in the subconscious realm. [Laughs] If that makes any sense.

Do you keep a dream journal?
I have in the past, and it's been pretty interesting. But there was a long period of time where I didn't dream at all. But when I stopped smoking weed, I started having these really vivid dreams again. It was a profound thing—I'd kind of forgotten how heavy dreams can be. But if you're a longtime weed smoker, it takes away a lot of that. When I wrote the song, I was having these really profound dreams that were challenging me in a way. It made a big impact on me, realizing that dreams really do reveal a lot if you look at them over time.

When did you stop smoking weed?
Somewhere between the first and second Serpentine Path albums, so a few years ago. Then I started a little bit again, but I'd say I didn't smoke weed for a good four years. It was like anything in life: You come to a point where you hit a wall with something and go, 'This doesn't work for me anymore. I don't enjoy this.' That's where I was at.

Did quitting have any effect on the way you write music?
At first, I was very afraid that my creative side would be hindered. But what I realized is that not smoking weed made me more critical of my ideas. When you use marijuana for your creative side, you'll take ideas that you might normally throw away and instead run with them to see where they go. But I was writing songs and playing guitar before I ever got into drinking or smoking, which reminded me that none of that stuff matters when it comes to music. It's beyond that.

Was weed important to Unearthly Trance's creative process in the early days?
[Laughs] Yeah. We were heavy, heavy users for a long time. It became part of the band. I think there was a ten-year stretch where we had it at every practice. One time we got so high that it was like, 'Should we even practice?' [Laughs] But yeah, we were super into it. It was a big part of the early era of the band for sure.

The album's final track, "In The Forests Keep," is mostly instrumental, except for a spoken word piece toward the end. What's the story behind that song?
That's our friend, the Reverend Daudafaerd. He's done a few spoken things on some split releases we've done. He's a really well read guy with a lot of occult information. What happened was that Relapse asked us if we had any time left to record an extra song. We didn't have one, but we thought it might be cool to do something experimental with this one guitar riff that I had. So we asked the Reverend if he had any ideas, and he told us this story about a human skull he found out in the woods by his house in Long Island a few years ago. What's the story behind the skull? That kind of thing. That song was originally more of an afterthought—it's not on the vinyl version—but it's definitely become part of the album.

The color scheme of the album cover is the same as Black Sabbath's Born Again . Was that intentional?
[Laughs] Yes and no. I always envision a color scheme for our albums, and this time I thought of that majestic purple. When I told [in-house graphic designer] Orion [Landau] at Relapse, I suggested a few other colors that might go with it, and he came back with the color scheme you see, with the red added in. I was like, "Oh, wow. It's Born Again." But I also thought, "Do people even know that Black Sabbath album? I'm into it, but I feel like most people aren't." So it's one of those things that wasn't really planned out. People have asked, 'Are you trying to say that you're starting over and the band is born again?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, sure.' [Laughs] I didn't think it'd be so obvious to people, but I probably should have because it's Black Sabbath.