Stalking the Ghost is the latest in a long line of albums that gives credence to the idea of genre experimentation within metal. That’s a good thing. From fluctuating tempos, to a magnification of breathy vocals alongside to gut-wrenchingly dark guitars, to the signature grooves Unearthly Trance have embraced over their storied career, Stalking the Ghost sits between a realm of familiarity and a choice experimentation, teetering between the two to try and capture dread and anguish alongside drastic sonic variations.
This direction is not without its faults, but that’s a topic for later. Stalking the Ghost begins with “Into the Spiral,” focusing on expediting the traditional rhythmic focus of doom metal, and acting as an ambassador of chaos to the rest of the album. “Into the Spiral” is a great summation of the album’s thesis, portraying a newer and more varied sound without losing intensity. Clearly, some of the more exploratory notions that Unearthly Trance were working toward on their last album V have managed to find their way here, through means of maturation of course. “Dream State Arsenal” flirts with a punishing and traditional grinding buildup, thickly layered, trudging through twangy darkness. It works as an introduction to the concepts of doom or sludge, successfully portraying a sense of impending calamity that culminates in violent commiseration. Vocals here show surprising depth and variation, never smothering the instrumentation. There really aren’t enough good things to say about this track, especially concerning its rather abrupt and grim breakneck ending, a sort of sonic break that’s become more noticeable in metal.
Tracks such as “Scythe” and “Famine” tend to work in tandem together to help define the core of the album. “Scythe” tends to surge and move along readily, relying on its dense impact to accentuate its placing after a track like “Dream State Arsenal.” The latter in this instance feels like Unearthly Trance at their grimmest, their most focused, producing a soundscape that isn’t so much a wall or scaled-up sound, but instead a coffin of unified rhythmic percussion and gut-punching power chords. “Famine”‘s roaring staccato rips and brief refrain only highlight the sonic maelstrom.
Yet a track like “Lion Strength,” for all its construction, doesn’t quite fit the pattern structure set up by the first couple tracks. It’s appropriately gritty and messy, heavy, all things you’d expect from Unearthly Trance at this point, but it’s also somewhat derivative of earlier sounds. “Invisible Butchery” has some greater experimentation, relying on those all-too-familiar soundscape breaks to help shift the direction of the track and subvert listeners’ expectations. For a brief moment, you would be somewhat convinced that Unearthly Trance wanted “Invisible Butchery” to pursue a sort of nonlinear construction, with its seismic grooves and explosive nature often reversed, or even better absent, or delayed beyond it’s normal genre conventions. “The Great Cauldron,” meanwhile, wins out for length, but its appeal is limited. Compared to the relative brevity of the rest of the tracks, or at least the more focused and specifically built tracks, “The Great Cauldron” flows, but it feels just a bit too static at points. It’s not boring, it’s just not engaging enough. It’s a missed opportunity to make the most out of a longer period of time.
Curiously, the album ends with “In the Forest’s Keep” one of the most atmospheric tracks. It’s manipulative in the same fashion as the best horror films are. We as listeners anticipate this gruesome explosion of sound, as a somber anxiety helps propel the track forward toward its conclusion. Spoiler alert: The payoff never comes. It just lingers over dissonant harmonies. This is shockingly effective, and shows a willingness to stay away from conventions. These expressions throughout the entirety of the album work extraordinarily well and are exemplified in such a simple moment as “In the Forest’s Keep”’s ending.
Stalking the Ghost should not turn anyone away from looking for a snappier and minimized doom/sludge that attempts to truncate established genre tropes in hopes of delivering content quicker, or at least changing the way we perceive genre adherence. When it works, it truly shines, and when it does stumble, it never truly fails outright, it merely misses developing a style that effectively complements the rest of the album. In its entirety, this is a modernized doom and sludge metal work that briskly and effectively communicates its thesis. Unearthly Trance still has room to grow, and it will be fascinating to see what direction they take.