Tuesday 17 April 2012

ESOTERIC - Voices from a Distant Place

There are only a couple of bands as important to the extreme doom metal scene as the English legion Esoteric. Starting their crusade across the oblivion of the darkest of metal arts in 1992, the Birmingham-based band now has six full-lengths under its belt, the last three of which were released by the French label Season of Mist. The newest offering "Paragon of Dissonance" and the previous "The Maniacal Vale" indisputably moved Esoteric to the forefront of the genre. The band's vocalist, guitar player, composer and producer Greg Chandler talked to We Wither about the secrets of the doom rituals.

Like 2008's "The Maniacal Vale", the new album "Paragon of Dissonance" is a double cd effort. Do you feel confident that you can keep the attention of the listener for almost 100 minutes? Or maybe the record is not necessarily meant to be listened in its entirety?

Well, we prefer to release long albums as the song writing is usually quite varied and so the songs can sound and feel rather different from one another. For us it is more interesting to record more material to bridge the gap between each album. The listener can listen to the album as they see fit, whether it’s just a song or two at a time, one disc or even both discs.

What emotions accompany the creative writing process? Are they similar feelings to those the listener experiences, such as alienation, desperation etc?
The emotions that we try to recreate in the music come from the emotions, thoughts and experiences that inspire the creative song-writing process. We write almost always from feel alone rather than set formulas or goals. It’s important for us to write music that has a deep personal meaning, so that it has a firm basis in how it relates to us and our own minds, so that when performing the music we have a strong bond and relation to what we are expressing. The listener will hear the music based on their own interpretation of it and it will vary considerably depending on how well they can relate to the emotional content and feelings within the music.

There is a saying that good literature comes from pain, depression, disappointment, grief. Does that also apply to music somehow?
In some instances, for some forms of music I would say yes. For some, maybe not. It just depends I think. I think strong emotions that have a deep meaning to the author will always feel quite strong to the recipient that can relate to the content the author deals with, whether it is literature, music, visual art and so on.

fot. by James Robinson (www.jwrobinson.co.uk)
Esoteric has been around for almost 20 years. Did the perception of your music change much in that time, are people more open to such an extreme form of music now that they were in the early ‘90s?
On a general level, I would say yes, certainly. When the band first formed and we released our first demo and then album and were playing a handful of live shows the reaction was very different to what it is now. Many complained that the music was too slow, particularly those listening to a lot of death or black metal, those that listened to traditional or stoner doom seemed to dislike the fact that we were a mixture of different styles and influences and were not “true” doom. We had very little acceptance of what we did in the beginning of the band’s existence and even less people who actually appreciated the music. We always knew that our music would not be popular, and even now, almost 20 years later I think there are still very many who cannot relate to our music or find anything they can appreciate within it. This never deterred us and never will, after all, we write music from the heart and I think that is something that is important for any musician, as it means the music will always have a strong sense of meaning to the writer. By the same token, there always was and probably always will be some level of support from those that want to hear something different to the mainstream and to the more generic forms of music, and I think that no matter what style of music you play or write, bands will always find some people who can relate to and appreciate what you do, it just takes time for those who might be interested to find you. We always seemed to gain more support from music journalists and writers than fans of music and I think this is still the case. And I think this is because those who listen to and review many different bands are perhaps more receptive to appreciate something that is a little different to the norm.

To understand what Esoteric is all about, you need to patiently digest and contemplate your records. It doesn't make any sense to do it some other way because it simply takes time. If only a few people are willing to do so, are you still happy to continue?
Of course, and I touched upon this briefly in the previous answer. I think where music is concerned, it is important to write something that is personal and has a great deal of meaning to the author, because it has a strong relation which is important for something that will be written over time, rehearsed and performed live again and again. Something that is written to appease others will quickly fade in time and not hold a deeper meaning for the artist, but something that is written from the heart will remain close to the artist and maintain a strong level of passion when it is performed.
"Paragon of Dissonance" is a record which makes time stop and transfers the listener to another dimension where the outer world doesn't exist. Is your music meant to offer something else than just tunes to bang your head to?
I think music has many different purposes and different styles of music and even different songs by the same bands or different sections of the same songs will contain different elements, emotions, and evoke different thoughts and emotions in the listener. Our music is written as a transposition of the darker sides of our minds and emotions, thoughts, experiences, observations, philosophies and so on. It is written with a purpose, it is written mostly when we feel inspired to write, to express such emotions that might otherwise be destructive or consuming. For those that can relate to what is contained within the music on a personal level it can offer a vicarious, intense journey through sound. For those that can’t it might offer nothing at all of any worth. It all depends on the disposition and tastes of the listener.

How would you define the genesis of the Esoteric sound?
It was created because we wanted to play very sorrowful, slow, dark, heavy and hateful music. So we tuned the guitars down very low and used extremely heavy sounds and a full spectrum of effects to create a huge wall of sound.

Legends like Black Sabbath and Napalm Death come from Birmingham. Is it an inspiring and unique place that makes people write angry dark music?
Birmingham is a large, dull, grey city in my eyes. It used to be an industrial city, but most manufacturing industries in the UK have now died as everything seems to be imported and government regulation really did nothing to aid its survival. There have been some efforts to modernize the city in recent years and as a result it is a mish mash of old industrial areas mostly falling into decline and modern shopping and service industries that are mainly franchises or chain stores you can find in most major cities. It is the second largest city in England and there is nothing particularly inspiring about the place. Why so many metal bands came from this area I do not know, but in addition to those cited, there was also Judas Priest, Godflesh, Bolt Thrower, and many others. There was an exhibition recently in the museum here created by the organizers of the Supersonic Festival which detailed many of the great bands from Birmingham, titled “Home of Metal”.

You're the only original member of Esoteric now. Is the band your brainchild in the sense that you write the whole thing and you gather people to perform your vision with you in the studio and then live?
Gordon Bicknell is also an original member and is still in the band. He took a break from playing within the band full time between June 2010 and November 2011 due to personal circumstances but he was in the band for most of the writing and rehearsing period for "Paragon of Dissonance" and did contribute one song of the seven found on "Paragon of Dissonance". He has been back in the band full time for the last few months and will be for the foreseeable future. I have always been the one organizing the band and the main contact for interviews and gigs, handling the recordings and production since the late nineties, etc, but in terms of song writing it has always been a group effort and on each album you will find at least 2 or 3 main song writers. To my mind it always offers a greater diversity and output when there are several writers in the band and it is more inspiring to work with like-minded musicians than to work alone or with session musicians. On "Paragon of Dissonance" myself and Jim Nolan were the main song writers, on "The Maniacal Vale", it was myself and Gordon with another 2 songs coming from Mark Bodossian (bass) and Olivier Goyet (keys). But throughout the band’s history we have always at least had a stable core of musicians who have been rehearsing every week to keep the momentum going, even when other members have come and gone or when using session musicians to complete the line up.

As usual you have been recording and producing the new album in your own Priory Recording studio. You seem to be very self-sufficient. Is it because you always know what are you going for or because nobody understands Esoteric better than you?
A bit of both I think. Firstly I only started training and then working as a sound engineer because of being so dissatisfied with working with other engineers on the earlier recordings and straight after the album session for "The Pernicious Enigma" I trained and then started to work full time in studios. This was both so that I could capture the sound of the band as we intended and also so that I had a career and way of earning a living that interested me and I could enjoy. The session for "The Pernicious Enigma" album recording was plagued with problems at the studio, a disinterested sound engineer, etc, and at the time no one seemed to have any idea of how to capture the band’s sound. It was rare to find engineers sympathetic to metal recordings back then, let alone one who could understand and appreciate how an experimental metal band like Esoteric should be recorded. "Metamorphogenesis" was the first album we recorded entirely by ourselves in 1998 and with only a year or so experience in studios it was quite a steep learning curve for me, coupled with an extremely limited budget and equipment. So the album did not turn out too well overall in terms of sound and production, yet it was infinitely closer to what Esoteric actually sounded like compared to previous efforts. By the time we recorded "Subconscious Dissolution..." in 2002 we managed to really start to do justice to the sound of the band and I would say that this was the first album we recorded where the production and mix did the songs proud. We’ve always tried to be self-sufficient where possible, partly due to budget but also due to the fact that we like to have control as we have always had a very clear idea of how we want the music to sound. It was just not having the technical know-how that prevented us from doing this on the early albums.

Do you enjoy listening to bands such as Mournful Congregation, Evoken and Comatose Vigil or as a listener do you prefer completely different sounds and emotions?
I do listen to some extreme doom and I have always had contact with John Paradiso from Evoken over the years and used to be in touch with Damon Good from Mournful Congregation back in the days of snail mail. Comatose Vigil more so in recent years, since befriending Anton, one of the organizers of the Moscow Doom Fest which we’ve played twice, whose last album I mixed and mastered here at the studio. I do listen to some extreme doom and always did, though back when Esoteric started I didn’t really know of any other bands until after we started releasing our music and found bands through fanzines and writing to other bands, etc, like Unholy, Skepticism, etc. Great bands. But it was only Winter that we were aware of and listened to at the time as there was really nothing around back then. When Esoteric started we appreciated the slower parts of death metal bands like Autopsy and then bands like early Cathedral and My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, etc, but we wanted to do something with our own style and be experimental, not just create a band that was heavily influenced by our musical tastes. Extreme doom then and more specifically funeral doom didn’t really exist to most people except in the depths of the underground, and printed DIY fanzines that covered this type of music were generally months and months out of date before they were completed.

Kati Astraeir again created a fantastic piece of art for the cover of "Paragon of Dissonance". How did you meet? Did she listen to the album before working on it or did you just chose one of her previous works?
We worked with Kati before on "The Maniacal Vale". She created the artwork for that album too. We found her through a good friend of ours, Michaela, who discovered her work while we were looking for an artist for that album. She’s an excellent artist and we were confident that she could create something that was fitting for our music and lyrics and she delivered beyond our expectations. So we decided to ask her to do the artwork for "Paragon of Dissonance" too. The layout and graphic design was handled both times by our good friend Mauro from Eibon Records and Italian band Canaan who is extremely talented and experienced with such matters. He was able to take the artwork created by Kati and turn it into a booklet and design that was consistent and visually striking for each album. With both albums we gave Kati working demos of the music and lyrics to draw inspiration and feeling from when creating the artwork and the end result is extremely fitting to the content of the music and lyrics.