No Such Thing As Nothing: Esoteric on 25 Years of “Esoteric Emotions – The Death Of Ignorance”
Few bands can be considered legendary, especially in such a niche style as "funeral doom metal." In the early 1990s, there was a sudden, near-global urge to move slower, pull back, and focus on atmosphere over energy. Finland had Thergothon and Unburied, Australia gave birth to Mournful Congregation, America had Funereus (soon to be Evoken), and England's psychedelic misery was formed as Esoteric. Of course, the term "funeral doom" wasn't really accepted then, just something thrown around lightly. As far as Greg Chandler, Esoteric founder and guitarist/vocalist, was concerned, the band just wanted to play slower and express a deeper, kaleidoscopic agony.
With their first demo, 1993's Esoteric Emotions - The Death of Ignorance*, the band's framework was laid. A slow, thick, harsh slab of nightmarish texture and mournful lugubre, Esoteric was destined to be legendary. There was nothing quite like it, even in hindsight. Even as a demo, there was a depth which spoke to greater creative thought and perfect communication within the band itself. Now, 25 years later, Greg Chandler reflects on Esoteric in the early 1990s, almost an entirely different band, and how they've reached their success today. Listen to the remastered Esoteric Emotions - The Death of Ignorance audio and read our interview with Chandler below. The specially packaged CD edition is currently available from Aesthetic Death.
Looking back to 1993, doom metal at the pace you found yourself so comfortable with Esoteric was still a very nice thing outside of a handful of Finnish and Australian demos. As "funeral doom" was such a new phenomena, how did Esoteric arrive at it with so few precedents?
Well, funeral doom didn’t exist back when we started. The term came a good few years later as far as I am aware. At the time the only way we would find out about other bands was through underground fanzines and tape trading, which was slow and often several months behind what was actually happening at the time. So bands like Thergothon, Unholy, Skepticism, Disembowelment, etc., we didn’t hear until after we’d recorded our first demo and were getting reviews or features in fanzines that contained the same bands. My first listen to Disembowelment and Thergothon was actually down at Stu’s place (Aesthetic Death records) in Pershore, after we had signed with the label for the first album. We were inspired by the slow, heavy and dark sections of some of the early death and doom death metal bands, such as Autopsy, Morbid Angel, My Dying Bride, etc., and we wanted to create something extreme, slow, and psychedelic, something we didn’t hear in other bands that was also very personal to us – music that could be made as a reflection of our darker states of mind, emotions, experiences and so on. So it began in the summer of 1992 and we started writing music, developing our own sound and style. The use of effects in our music was something that was related to our love of music with big or trippy atmospheres, whether it was listening to bands like Pink Floyd, Spacemen 3, Monster Magnet, King Crimson, etc., or bands on the industrial or dark ambient side of the music spectrum. Our musical tastes were pretty broad – we also listened to a lot of music that was not metal, but some of it was just as dark, if not darker. We had wanted to use sounds and atmospheres to enhance the music right from the start, and felt it was something that we could add to our own music in our own style, creating disquieting atmospheres with effects. So the first couple of years we basically scrimped and saved and slowly started to build up our arsenal of effects. And our sound started to develop and become closer to what we had originally envisaged. It took a bit of time because we were young and broke. The use of effects was pretty unusual at the time in extreme metal, but we didn’t really think about that – we had our own vision of what we wanted to sound like. And it came from our own experimentation with psychedelics.
Making attempts at creating something singular and new must have been difficult, especially without any inspiring, concrete precedents. Did you face any creative hardships while writing and recording Esoteric's full-length demo?
We had the idea from the beginning that we wanted to do something quite different, not only in the sounds we would create, but the nature and style of the music. It took some time to develop our sound and songwriting, and I think from the first album onwards we really started to achieve that. There were some pointers in the demo as to how the band would develop, and that was something we needed to work on and integrate further. At the time of recording the demo the band was still quite fresh and we were young and a little inexperienced. These were the first songs we had ever written and we’d only been together for a year. Creative output was never really a problem, although it took a bit longer for the quality control to improve and for hindsight to help us develop the band as we had envisioned. The demo was our first real recording, and other than a few primitive rehearsal recordings, [and] it was our first chance to really hear the music back objectively and analyze it. So we learned a lot from this, what we needed to do next to improve as musicians to get better at songwriting and arranging and how we could integrate a more unique atmosphere into the music. As an initial reaction to the demo recording, we aimed for less repetition in the music, more diversity in the writing and spent more time on developing unique sounds and effects, aided by being able to eventually buy more equipment.
The electronics and pedals certainly are a hallmark of your sound at this point - were they a goal for the band from the beginning?
Yes, we were always interested in using effects in the band from the start. Creating soundscapes and trippy sounds was always the aim from the beginning. We were influenced by our own experimentations with psychotropic substances and also from some of the music we listened to. We felt that we could enhance the emotions of the music by creating different sounds and atmospheres. It was something that took a little time to get right for us and to integrate as much as we wanted to, both with the acquisition and the practical side of it, but we loved experimenting. Any piece of equipment we had, we would learn inside out and often push the parameters to extreme settings and modulate these sounds so they were not static.
Though not fully realized in your eyes without the aid of electronics, the atmosphere on the Death of Ignorance demo was still surprisingly psychedelic, especially for an early example of a more funereal take on death/doom metal. Though you had the "psychedelics-driven" vision, how did it come to fruition on these recordings?
Our aim was definitely for the demo to be psychedelic and trippy. I think what we really noticed, though, after the demo recording, is that it was a little more stripped down than we had anticipated it would turn out. This is why we were more intense with use of effects on following albums. It came to fruition from rehearsing with the effects, experimenting with sounds and learning all about every type of effect, how they responded with every kind of parameter setting and the real time modulation of them. So, in time, we became really efficient at re-creating the sounds we had in our heads through the equipment.
How does it feel revisiting this demo 25 years and 8+ hours of music later?
In a way it is actually nice to revisit it since I hadn’t listened to it for many years. Listening to the music and considering the questions and what was going on at the time brings back some good memories and a bit of nostalgia for times past. Of course, the band and our music has evolved a lot since that time and the song-writing became a lot more developed and complex. But it is also nice to return to the roots of our music, where the style was more straightforward and perhaps more brutal in its simplicity. It was the starting point for the band and it served us well, leading to our deal with Stu from Aesthetic Death back in 1993. That has also led to a lifelong friendship. It is rare to find such a genuine, supportive and good person as Stu. He was the first label to really believe in the band and he was more than willing to take a risk by working with us.
I sense a bit of duality in the way you talk about the music -- you feel this nostalgia about it, but you also wish it was as complex as your vision. With the aid of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently (given your abilities and available resources) to amend your doubts regarding the demo?
I think it’s probably quite normal for bands to want to go back to their first or early recordings if they are re-releasing it later on. There is usually something that can be improved with hindsight, even if you were reasonably happy with it at the time. Unfortunately, without having the original analogue tapes, we couldn’t do anything except adjust the mastering slightly. Ideally I would have been able to re-mix it and get a better balance and shape the sound closer to how we wanted it at the time. It wasn’t a bad mix really it just wasn’t the way we wanted it, but the first time in a recording studio it is difficult to understand how the sound in there translates to a normal hi-fi. That comes with more studio experience.
In terms of how I would have approached the demo recording differently now, I think we would have recorded less songs for the demo so that we could have had more time to spend on each in the studio. Then the recording and mix would have also been less rushed and we could have added more effects and taken that aspect further. Regarding the songs themselves, we would have added more intricacy and depth to some of the chords and also cut down the songs a little so there wasn’t quite so much repetition in some of the riffs and themes. We only had seven hours. If I remember correctly, to mix 78 minutes of music, which meant that we could only listen through each song a couple of times before having to commit to the mix. By the time we recorded the first album, Epistemological Despondency, we all had multi-effects or multiple pedals for each instrument with controllers via midi and expression pedals. So we were then able to create all of the sounds and program the modulation of them so they were just a part of every rehearsal and performance. Signing to Aesthetic Death for the first album gave us a budget to record with, so we were able to put the money we could save into our equipment instead of the recording.
What ultimately led to the reissue of this demo? As I recall, there has only been the original cassette in 1993 and the remastered CD-R in 2000, but neither were widespread nor as intricate as the impending digibook edition.
When we first released the demo, we did a few re-prints on cassette over the following couple of years, and then a short run of CD-R copies around 1999/2000 in response to some requests from fans to get a copy. We hadn’t really wanted to do an official release, the main reason being that the demo was written while the band was in its earliest stage and we felt the music no longer represented or stood up to what Esoteric did in later years. However, over time our stance on this softened because we had a lot of requests from fans for the demo to be re-released and we didn’t want to do it DIY again because it is time consuming and doesn’t look great. There were also a few labels asking us for the opportunity to do this over the years too, which we had previously decided against.
A couple of people had pointed out to us that there is a label bootlegging CD-R versions of the demo on Discogs at quite an unreasonable price also. That is annoying. I mean, you can’t stop bootlegs really, especially when sites like discogs allow it, but at least now the people who want to buy it can get the official version with decent packaging at a reasonable price. So it came around as a combination of many reasons, really. It also coincides with the 25th anniversary of our existence, so it finally felt right. We chose to release it with Aesthetic Death because Stu is the perfect choice – this was the demo that led to us working with him for the first two albums. Stu was the only label who believed in the band enough to take a risk back then. I didn’t realize that he had wanted to re-release the demo for a long time, but just hadn’t asked us because he thought we didn’t want to. It was only when discussing an offer from another label that he told me.
What should fans visually expect from this new edition?
The CD is being released as a heavy duty Digipak with a 20-page inlay. The original artwork has been modified to fit on CD and there is a lot of new artwork, beautifully crafted in the same style by Meriel Longmore who did a fantastic job. The artists and label a lot of time and thought into making this a great looking release and we’re really happy with how it has turned out.
Earlier on, and especially on the Death of Ignorance demo, there was a concentration on Satan and Satanism found within Bryan's and your lyrics (referencing LaVey's Fifteenth Key, Satanic anarchy, et cetera). How did the Satanic Bible influence these earlier works? Does it still resonate now, even with your more, for lack of a better word, "esoteric" approach to metaphysics in lyrics?
Well, we had a deep interest in the Occult and Satanism, philosophy and human psychology and some authors and practitioners resonated with us quite heavily. We were interested by the works of LaVey, Crowley, Nietzsche, Hume, Jung, and so on. But we always had our own thoughts, philosophies and way of life, we didn’t follow any particular organisation. I was studying Philosophy and Psychology in College and the interest in the Occult and Satanism stemmed from both this and the music we were growing up with. Bryan had been reading about and studying Satanism and the Occult for some years too and it was an interest that spread throughout the band. I think the Satanic bible resonated quite strongly in some respects because at the time in the early 1990s Christianity was still reasonably strong in the UK, and it was quite relevant to the time. Now, 25 years later and Christianity here is dying out with the older generations. I don’t think it is quite so force fed to the younger generations here in 2017. Our own families were either atheists or agnostics, but it was inherent in schools and society and we rebelled against this. After the first couple of releases we decided we didn’t want to use any audio samples or quotes, so that all of the content was totally ours. We just didn’t feel the need. Also, we discovered that the problem with using any extraneous quotes means that you tend to get pigeonholed as belonging to a certain group and that wasn’t the intention or case. We are free thinking individuals and continue to build our own paths in life.
Do you still feel an affinity toward the occult?
Yes, there is still an affinity with and interest in the Occult. The lyrics in general tend to be more developed and veiled than they were in our earliest releases. The band line-up is also quite different now, only myself and Gordon remain since the start of the band. This has also affected the way the music has developed over the years, but I think the essence of the band is still much the same.
The original flier for the demo calls Esoteric "tortured" - has the idea of being tortured and uncomfortable followed Esoteric throughout its existence, or is this something which helped define its early years?
Well, at the time, the word “tortured” was used to describe the sound and feel of the music, because we felt that our music was darker and more bereft than melancholic or sad, so the word “tortured” seemed more fitting to describe the levels of anguish. I think there is a greater use of light and shade in terms of mood in some of our later song-writing, but the anguish is still very much there. I guess for us, it is something that we embrace within the music and the expression of it.
There was certainly that harsher, nightmarish, "bad trip" vibe which defined your earlier works, especially when compared to the dreamier melancholy which moved further to the forefront as your discography grew. Though still anguished, 21st Century-era Esoteric doesn't contain that frightening atmosphere from this demo and the first two full lengths. What led to this eventual change?
I think that at least a small part of that can simply be contributed to the much rawer production, cheaper equipment we were using and the effects being more in the forefront of the mixes. So it felt more overwhelming too, perhaps. There is just a lot more variation in the newer material. There was very little relent in the earlier material I think. All of it was extremely dark, chaotic, and the production was muddy and claustrophobic which might have hurt the details in the mix a little, but it did contribute to the extremity of the atmosphere. The music on later albums is more complex, so it needed a clearer production. It was also a different line-up, only myself and Gordon remain from the original line-up, although we were writing a substantial chunk of the material in earlier times too. I would say that it is a result of many things. The natural evolution of the band - the band spans a long period of time so it was bound to progress and change, and we don’t want to make albums that sound too alike either. It’s hard for me to say really because I never found the music nightmarish. For me it is uplifting, like an exorcism of demons, but everyone experiences things differently. I understand what you mean, but I still think that the music has those elements in later albums, it just isn’t as prevalent.
Keeping that rawer sound and muddier production in mind, how did you approach remastering this material now that you are more experienced as a producer?
I didn’t do the recording or mixing on the demo and first two albums. I started training to become a sound engineer just after we finished the second album. We used the in house studio engineers and I don’t think they really got what we were trying to do. With the demo I didn’t have much scope to re-master since the original DAT tapes were corrupted and we didn’t have the analogue reels to remix from – we couldn’t afford to buy them at the time. So I could only make some adjustments to the existing master, to try to bring the guitars out a little more.
With The Pernicious Enigma, I had the ADAT tapes from the original recording, so I could transfer them to Pro Tools and do a full re-mix. All of the effects, with the exception of the drum reverbs, were printed to the recording, so my main aim was simply to bring out more of the details in the music, sounds and drums that were missing in the original mix, that were either buried or masked in some way. I didn’t want it to feel too different to the original, just to be more audible and clearer.
Are there any specific things you try to keep in mind when remastering your own material as opposed to engineering the works of others?
When remastering or remixing an earlier Esoteric album, I have lived with the album for some time and so I know what I am looking to change or adjust already. It is then just a question of whether that can be achieved with what I have to work with (e.g. the raw recording, or just a finished mix or master). I am not looking to make it sound too different to the original, just to bring out some of the details that were previously masked or subdued in the mix or master and make any improvements I can really try to make it closer to what we wanted at the time. If we were mostly satisfied with the original mix then I didn’t adjust them at all, such as with the last three albums, where we do have all the multitrack recordings/files. I just had to create a master prepared specifically for the vinyl format from the original mix. I think there is always something that can be improved with hindsight and it is impossible to be totally satisfied with every detail in an album, so I think it is important to be realistic and know where to draw the line.
When working with other clients, my approach is different because I am not there during the song writing and development stage, so I want to try to make sure that the vision and tastes of the musicians I am working with are respected, understood and achieved in the end result. I will give help and guidance as needed regarding the sounds and music, capturing the best performance, and some additional ideas if the band is open to suggestions. But I always try to get a good solid idea of what the band are looking for before the session starts so I am already prepared with how to approach it. I do this through communication, listening to demos of the songs we will record/mix and also past releases and other recordings or sound references if required. It also varies from band to band, since different bands like to work in different ways. Some have a much clearer idea of what they want than others, some like to have more input or ideas and some don’t. I am also not only working with metal bands. I love metal, but I also like variety in my work and over the years of working at different studios and running Priory Studios I have been involved with all kinds of different projects and styles of music.
When working with Esoteric, most of the sounds you hear on the record are already created and rehearsed with long before we hit the studio, so we already have a pretty good idea of what it will sound like and how the mix should work. We also record rehearsals from time to time, and make demos of the songs as we write and experiment with them. It is useful to be able to listen back to music you are writing or working on, in order to get new ideas and to check how it is working as it develops. But generally speaking with Esoteric, it is a different approach simply because I am also involved in the songwriting, playing, rehearsals, etc., not just handling the engineering or production. The other members of the band are all very experienced and adept in the studio, also used to producing their own music, so it tends to go pretty smoothly nowadays.
Do you feel this extra time and care you've given your demo will have an effect on future Esoteric work? That is to say, has it left a new mark on you?
Regarding the demo, the main time spent was in getting the artwork organised and meeting with Stu (Aesthetic Death) to discuss all of the details for the release. Since the original was just a cassette release there was only a front cover, logo, inlay text and lyrics sheet. Meriel Longmore did a great job in adapting the original artwork and creating new artwork in a similar style, to complement the original release. She spent a huge amount of time and effort and we were really grateful for her contribution. Regarding the audio, since I could only re-master it didn’t take too long. But of course I listened through the demo a few times during this process. I don’t think it will directly affect new work, but the new material is quite different to the last album already. One other point regarding songs we write and play as a band. We go through the process so many times during writing and rehearsal, and record them, play the songs live, etc., so they just become embedded. You never really forget how they go, they are all in your head and you hear them just by thinking of them or of that era. So it isn’t like they ever really become too distant.
*NOTE: Esoteric was never named "Esoteric Emotions". Greg Chandler recently made a public comment surrounding this. The "Esoteric Emotions" was merely part of the demo title.