There are no shortage of reunions in metal. It seems like for every band that decides to call it a day, another two decided to hit the road and attempt to recapture their glory days but despite all this, there are those whose return couldn’t be more welcome (or more timely). Once considered amongst the most punishing, unpredictable acts in doom, New York’s Unearthly Trance decided to call it a day in 2012 but five years later, the flame has been rekindled and has grown into an inferno in the shape of Stalking The Ghost, their first album in seven years. To celebrate the occasion, we cornered guitarist and vocalist Ryan Lipynsky to talk NYHC, authenticity and all things heavy.
Cheers for talking to us and it’s great to have you guys back! I was just thinking back to when Season Of Seance… came out and damn, I feel old. Does it feel that long for you, thinking back over everything you’ve achieved?
When we first started feels like a lifetime ago. We were all living in a similar area, the middle of nowhere in Long Island, New York and we had a different mentality back then, because we were just creating music that no-one was really into. We were more or less doing it for ourselves and not really expecting it to go anywhere but back then, I feel like we were just forming the concept of the band. Looking at it now, I feel like we have so much experience. 17 years is a long time.
What was that first concept? Did you have a blueprint for what you wanted to do, or to sound like?
I think there was this definite idea to do something really slow and heavy but with some of the black metal influences I had at the time. I think we were looking to play some really slow, ugly, evil metal that wasn’t really being represented at the time.
It feels like that black metal element has been pushed to the back now and has been replaced with something weirder. Did you feel that as a conscious change?
Over the years, I’ve gotten less and less into black metal so I think it’s been a natural progression to go towards what’s more of a unique expression of myself rather than having a heavy influence from somewhere else. I think we’ve always gone into ourselves rather than mimic something else so all these years later, we have our own style of music that we can draw upon. We’ve never set too many rigid rules as to what we can and cannot do, so we’ve always left the door open to try and take the band in different directions when we’ve felt like it.
You’re one of those rare bands that can marry that Sunn O)))-like sense of heaviness with traditional songwriting – there are still riffs, something tangible to grab hold of. How important was it to you to maintain not just heaviness, but also a sense of musicality within the band?
For me, as the main songwriter, it’s something that’s always been important to me. I think I learned early on as a guitarist, as a young kid, how important songwriting is; not just to create a sound, not just to have the best and loudest gear, because all that stuff can help but if you don’t have songs, you don’t have a good band, in my opinion. If your band doesn’t have any memorable songs, you’re not going to listen to it again and I feel like we’re the kind of band where you can get into our music and have a favourite song, have things about the music that sticks with you. Early on, even before Sunn O))), we were really into Burning Witch and that super-heavy guitar sound that Steve O’Malley had, Eyehategod, Grief, Sleep – all of that was a huge influence on us tone-wise and gear-wise, the things we were obsessed with but I never lost track of making sure the music had something to it; not just an afterthought, like I see a lot of bands do.
So coming forward to Stalking The Ghost – I think you’ve been working on these songs since 2015?
When we stopped playing together in 2012, I did have a few songs I never got round to working on, so there were a few songs from my personal collection of demo ideas that we picked from for this new album when we got back together in 2015. Jay (Newman, bass) listened to a few of them and said, “I think these two or three might be good for working on.” We started there and then I began writing newer material to complement some of the existing stuff we had. So it was a mixture of newer ideas and older ideas, and then picking what songs went together the best. It wasn’t like it took a long time to write, it was more that we were satisfied with decisions and then also, getting into the studio, booking it, the turn-around time for the record – it all ends up just becoming a long period of time before it actually comes out. We recorded last summer and it’s just coming out now, so before that we were just steadily working on it. We didn’t have a deadline so we didn’t rush it, we did it on our own terms. When we told Relapse that we were ready, they were really supportive and said, “Let’s do this.” So when we were ready, we did it.
In the time that you’ve been working as an artist within the industry, do you think there’s been much of a change to the album release process?
Yeah, it definitely takes longer now, especially for vinyl, to come out because there’s a lot more production and a lot of the companies are getting huge orders from bigger labels that are putting out vinyl, whereas in the early days vinyl was very much underground. In the early 2000s, not many people were putting it out but at the same time, I feel like early on we didn’t have many difficulties putting out releases because there weren’t as many bands and now I feel like there’re tons of them. Putting out a release now is different because so many people put their music out immediately on Bandcamp or digitally, and if you don’t do it that way then you have to wait for the turnaround. There’s definitely a disconnect with the old way where you wait a long time for the turnaround, which is something I’m used to, and how a lot of the culture nowadays is very immediate; they want to hear the newest thing that just got recorded. There’re ups and downs with technology.
“There are a lot of people playing it safe and copying other bands these days and I think we’ve always stayed our own path.”
Do you think that immediacy helps or hinders when it comes to DIY music releasing?
I think it can be helpful, especially if you’re a new band and want to get people to check out your stuff. It makes total sense but at the same time I think people these days have shorter attention spans, so they’ll check it out but then they’re on to the next thing. I don’t think records stick with people as long as they used to, like when I was growing up and would listen to an album over and over again, or had just a few cassettes that I would listen to all the time. Now, it’s like the difference between a little corner store and a massive grocery store that has everything you could ever imagine. There’s so much to pick through and discover, and unless you really are hunting for specific sounds, a lot of bands go under the radar. It’s a double-edged sword.
What were your own listening habits like as a kid?
Early on, I listened to a lot of thrash and Metallica – just the basic stuff in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I was also into a lot of more regular heavy metal. In the late ‘90s I got really into the underground hardcore scene that was going on in New York. At 18 to 20, that was when I got into sludge like Neurosis, so that’s when the big change happened. I’d say at the end of the 90’s was when I was getting into other kinds of music that wasn’t just hardcore or some of the older classics I was into, but nowadays I listen to all the different music that I used to listen to throughout my life. It’s interesting to look back on.
It’s been said that if you want to test yourself as a musician, you move to New York. How much did NY play a part in your sound?
I think we’re a New York band through and through. All three of us were born here and have lived here our whole lives – well, I live in New jersey but it’s 30 minutes away from Manhattan. It has to have affected us, the kind of people we are and our attitudes. We’re more in-your-face, aggressive as native New Yorkers are, but over the years a lot of people have moved to Brooklyn to try and make it and like any place that gets a good scene, it becomes inundated with tons of people moving there who think they’re going to become the new rock star. To me, I don’t think that the scene shaped who we are as much as everyday life did. I think we are very much a New York band and you can hear a lot of bands who move here from the Midwest or from wherever and put together bands and say they’re a New York band, they don’t have the kind of sound that I would identify with. I think over the years, there hasn’t much of a true New York scene, just a lot of people moving here and leaving. Every time we play, it’s a different crowd so it’s really hard to say in recent times if it’s there. I think it’s made us become more separated and isolated, honestly. In the early days, that was a different thing. That really underground scene, where people were more close-knit, doesn’t really exist anymore.
That New York hardcore scene is really the stuff of legend now, though. What were your memories of it?
Well, I’m 39 now so in the mid-‘90s was when I really started going to hardcore shows. We’d take the train in from Long Island and go to CBGB’s and see really crazy shows. My impression back then was that it was really scary and dangerous. There were people getting beat up and you didn’t want to bump into the wrong guy… I used to get black eyes and come home and my mom would say, “Who beat you up?” and I’d say, “No, I was just at a show.” She never really understood. The ‘90s in general was way more violent at shows. Not even hardcore shows, but even with metal bands and alternative bands, the shows were much more violent, whereas everything nowadays is much more passive.
Yeah, there was actually a quote in the press release for Stalking The Ghost – “Bringing misery to a gentrified city.” Is the album a reaction to this change then, this watered-down subculture that we’re being fed?
We’ve always been that kind of band, where we’re loud and ugly and confrontational-sounding compared to most music, and it’s just an honest expression of who we are. There’s nothing that we’re trying to do, in my opinion, but we may come across that way compared to things that are watered-down and derivative. There are a lot of people playing it safe and copying other bands these days and I think we’ve always stayed our own path. We’ve fortified it and made it strong, so I think there’s a real authenticity to our band compared to some other bands, but it doesn’t mean we feel we’re superior or are establishing some scene. It’s more a press release thing that Relapse put together than something we were going for but I understand what they’re saying, that us coming back sets things straight a little bit as far as our kind of music in Brooklyn. We’ve been around longer than many bands so we have a history.
While the band were away, you were all working together in Serpentine Path. Did that give you any ideas for the path you wanted to take when Unearthly Trance came back?
It had to have influenced us in a way just because it kept me, Jay and Darren (Verni, drums) playing together and over time, the idea of going back and playing Unearthly Trance seemed more possible and easy but as far as sound and stuff, Unearthly Trance has always been its own thing and Serpentine Path is more Tim Bagshaw’s band, where he wrote most of the riffs and music and it was his vision that we wanted to complement. It was a very singular goal for Serpentine Path, which was to make crushing death-doom; nothing experimental but as straightforward as we could get, whereas Unearthly Trance has always been experimenting. In a sense, though, doing that created a blank slate for us to say with Unearthly Trance, “What do we want to do next?” It’s always been about moving forward and doing new things. We’ve always been the band that, when we’ve finished an album, we’re wondering what we’re going to do next. I think the idea of coming back together was enough to get us inspired, and Serpentine Path met a natural end, where we started doing this and Tim started doing With The Dead, so it was a natural progression.
I’ve got to say that Orion’s artwork for this records kicks ass. How was the process working with him this time around?
We’ve worked with him in the past but we hadn’t really had enough time to work out concepts. It was more of a quick thing, but this time we had plenty of time to go back and forth with him. The first thing he came up with was not too different from how the final outcome was but we did a lot of little adjustments and tweaking up the whole concept to make it really solid. I think it was the whole process of refining it that gave it that nice touch. He really understood what we were going for and it’s a really strong image. It’s what we wanted and he was very good at communicating with. We’d say something and he’d immediately go and improve on it. He’s awesome to work with and a really good guy.
The other thing you worked on before this record was the Ouroboros compilation. Did going through such a vast amount of your older material affect what you did on this record?
I think it did. Just working on that release gave us the idea. Once we were done with that, me and Jay went through the archives, finding the master recordings, so there was a lot of reliving some old memories and jokes that we hadn’t thought of in a while, and then listening to the material and remembering the crazy recording sessions we did with these obscure songs definitely made us think about new music. Then, some of the songs we had forgotten about, like “Montauk” on the split with SUMA, I hadn’t heard in a while and when we were listening to it, I was thinking, “This is a crazy song! I had totally forgotten about this!” Things like that, where we’ve done so much stuff that there’s some things I forget about it until I hear it and then I’m like, “Oh, I forgot that one existed!”
Are there any of those songs that you just think, “Damn, I wish that had gone on an album!”?
There’s one song in particular that was supposed to be on two or three albums that we’ve always decided not to use called “Oceans Expand”. We had that around forever but for some reason or another, we never put on an album and I don’t know why we never did. It’s hard to say but I think I like that certain songs are on these smaller releases because it’s something unique to check out. Should they have been on albums? I don’t think so. I think it all happens for the right reason.
In your mind, what are the ingredients for the perfect Unearthly Trance gig?
Ideally, a quality sound system and a sound guy who knows how to mix and make it sound great, a medium-sized club, where it’s not too big but not tiny, good beer… that’s about it. We’re pretty simple. We just crank our amps up and play it like we always do and as long as the vibe is good, we’re always happy to play. The things we don’t like are when we’re told to turn it down or people that clash with us from the club but that’s the only thing that can diminish the experience. In terms of what we want, all the gear to work and no technical problems, for everyone to be enthusiastic and have a good time. We’re always having a fun time when we play, we’re never too serious and when the crowd are receptive, it always works out good for us.