The spiritual alignment of Dream Unending

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Dream Unending interview

Derrick Vella and Justin DeTore are on the same wavelength. When the two veteran metal musicians—Vella of Tomb Mold, and DeTore of Magic Circle and Sumerlands—began their psychedelic, elegant death doom metal project Dream Unending as a remote collaboration during the early pandemic era, they entered into it without any expectation of how they’d operate together. They don’t rehearse together or even live in the same country, but it didn’t take long before everything just clicked for the duo. As they got to know each other better over the course of writing their debut, Tide Turns Eternal, they soon realized that they were closely aligned on a creative level, and in time, that developed into an implicit trust between the two musicians.

“When Justin goes to do his drums, I don’t know what he’s going to play. There’s just a level of confidence there that it’s gonna be good,” Vella says. “And Justin trusts me to write songs that he likes, and I haven’t lost my touch yet, so that’s good. We don’t have band practices, we’ve only seen each other once in the last three years. So we just give ourselves a lot of space to do what we want. I never have to critique his vocals or vocal placements. You do what you’re gonna do and I’m gonna like it. And I think that matters. If we were steeped in debate over text or email, I feel like it would be such a drag.”

The musical chemistry between Vella and DeTore has resulted in an even grander, more ambitious album with their sophomore effort, Song of Salvation. Bookended by two 14-plus-minute songs, it aims ever higher, at once adding a greater depth and animation to their colossal doom metal dirges, while embracing an even more pronounced sense of space in their pursuit of a transcendent, more spiritual take on heavy music.

Ahead of the release of Song of Salvation via 20 Buck Spin, I spoke to Dream Unending’s Derrick Vella about making a lot of music in a brief period of time, embracing silence, and taking on themes you don’t often hear in a metal album.

Treble: Song of Salvation arrives only one year after Tide Turns Eternal, which feels counterintuitive—music this big and elaborate you wouldn’t expect to come in such quick succession. Did you begin work on it as soon as the debut was finished?

Derrick Vella: Yeah, it was basically immediately after the first one. After Tide Turns Eternal was even mixed, I had already started writing the title track for Song of Salvation. I was just hit by so much inspiration. It was like climbing a big mountain—it was great. It’s weird, I think, some people are caught off guard if you don’t wait for public reaction when you start on something else. And we had the luxury of time to work on new ideas because everything was taking so long, during the pandemic, to come out. Like, when we send everything to the pressing plant, it’ll be months and months until it comes out. The record won’t even ship until next year. It’ll come out this year technically, but it won’t ship until next year. So I have all this time, might as well use it to my advantage. So we were just having so much fun, we were like “let’s do it again.” Now we know how to do it, we can go into it with more confidence now that we know we can tackle remote recording. Let’s just see where we can take it. And that also gives us more freedom to see how far we can push our boundaries. And it worked out pretty well. We’re two for two.

Treble: Once you finished Tide Turns Eternal, did you have more of a clear vision of where the music would go next?

DV: It’s funny because when I wrote the first record, it was the first time I wrote any doom metal or anything, other than the occasional Tomb Mold riff that was kind of slow. Writing the songs—I didn’t write it in mind as this long cohesive passage through something, like a journey, but it really turned out that way. Recognizing that, I was able to key into that more, how the record was supposed to flow. I didn’t want to take the record six minutes to really start driving, and with Tide…there’s a lot of preamble before the first heavy riff. With this one, I wanted to cut that down significantly, like come out the gates swinging. Within the first 90 seconds it sounds way busier. I wanted it to immediately suck you in. Like alright, we’re taking you for a ride. It’s this arc within a larger arc. There’s a part within the opening song where the drums drop out and there’s this creepy single-note guitar line, and the drums come back in with a tom-heavy beat, like something from a spaghetti western movie. And so when I hear the song I just think like, “oh, it’s a song about a cowboy ascending to heaven.”

Treble: With Dream Unending there’s a balance between these prettier moments and the maximalism of doom metal. How much are you testing the balance of those elements against each other?

DV: It’s funny, because my fear is losing the listener. Sometimes I forget that it’s OK to be quiet for a moment. There are some moments where there’s just like one clean guitar and it’s very scaled back. And I realize those moments are important and I need to not run away from that. My friend Leila (Abdul-Rauf) who plays trumpet on “Secret Grief,” she said it’s good to have silence, it’s good for tension, whether good or bad, you have to have it. That made me feel better. My approach is I write this riff and put all this shit on top of it so you maybe pick up something a little different with each listen. And I’m also just worried that we only have 44 minutes, so you really have to pack it in. And I’m slowly realizing you don’t have to always pack it in. It is a fine balance, you want to have these moments that are huge, multiple heavy guitars harmonizing and some clean stuff on top, and Justin’s vocals that are otherworldly all the time. And that’s why the balance is key. Arthur Rizk, who mixed and mastered it, I owe him a steak dinner for how well of a job he did balancing everything. I always get that out of ambient electronic music. There’s an artist named Steve Hauschildt, he was in a group called Emeralds, and I love listening to his songs, longer pieces where you’re introduced to one idea and then you get comfortable with it, and as you get comfortable with it another thing comes in over the top and expands the image. I’m always trying to do that with Dream Unending—give you something nice and then sprinkle a little something extra on top, see how you feel. I didn’t just want to make a 14-minute song that was all heavy. I feel like that would be kinda boring.

Treble: You said you didn’t really write any doom metal songs prior to Dream Unending—how much of a challenge was it to begin the project?

DV: First of all, what I needed to do was to write something, or just come up with song ideas and see how they sounded to Justin. In the very beginning, the first couple ideas I sent to him in the initial process of working on the songs that became Tide Turns Eternal, he’d say “this is good, this is too much like Tomb Mold,” so I needed him to kind of call it. And if you like that, I’ll chase that idea before. And kind of just gauge his comfort level with how much I can throw at a song and how much is too much or not. But for him no idea was too out there—he kind of embraced that. I think for me it was always just how do I tie a bow on each song, how do I end these songs? Luckily I have the luxury of having written with other people. But writing for doom metal songs is different than death metal songs. 

It’s easier when you’re kind of working on something by yourself, because you can hold yourself accountable. If it’s just me, I want to finish the song and it motivates me to keep working on it. And it’s fun, but without being hard on yourself. It’s a matter of just feeling it out. I like writing music and just putting it out. Some people might write eight songs and sit on them for years, fine tuning them to oblivion. But no, when it’s good, just make it, and hopefully by the time it’s out, you’re writing new stuff that shows we’re elevating ourselves as musicians or writers. I like seeing the growth of writing in a band. If you like Frank Zappa, you have so much music to listen to that has a lot of different flavor, but if Frank Zappa put out only half the stuff he put out, it wouldn’t be as fun. I like looking at the journey of an artist.

Treble: You each play in other bands outside of Dream Unending, but do you get something different out of this band than you do with Tomb Mold, for instance?

DV: I think this band is a lot more personal and that shows in the subject matter and lyrics and quotes we include in the records. It’s OK to feel sentimental, it’s OK to talk about joy and love, and things you don’t encounter so much in metal. That’s just how we feel, and it’s true to us. That’s something that we kind of stumbled on about each other. We didn’t know that from the beginning. We didn’t know that we felt there was a spiritual alignment in how we felt about the world at large and the road we’re on. That just came from getting to know each other. But that was something that helped sculpt the sound of the band, the image of the band, the presentation of the songs and whatnot, and the statement or message that the albums carry. You can be personal in all your bands, but it’s tricky when you’re in a band with three or four people and you’re not all feeling the same way, and one person’s spouting a particular philosophy, it can be kind of sticky, you know what I mean? With Dream Unending, we’re not saying anything crazy, it’s just like hey, it’s OK to feel good and want to make yourself better.

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