Review Summary: Esoteric's magnum opus, an unrivaled masterpiece if there ever was one.
Three years after their landmark "Epistemological Despondency" album Esoteric released what I consider their magnum opus, the mighty and undeniable classic "The Pernicious Enigma". Their style hadn't changed much, but it was most fully realized and perfectly executed in this two hour double album masterpiece. The dull analog production, precise composition and oppressive atmosphere come to a head on this album, the quality of which they have not since achieved and will never likely be rivaled by any band in the doom metal genre.
The sound here is most representative of Esoteric's style. The merging of dullness and clarity allows their complex, full and warm sound flourish, and buries the abrasive screeching and high end sounds which compliment the sub end pounding rhythms. The rhythm guitar churns out heavy chords which create a backbone of low end rumbling over which leads crawl out and eerily squeal, or follow along with dark and depressive melodies. Using three guitars at a time allows them to employ a varying interplay of melodies, often using effects to create a bizarre ambiance and move the sound from moody plodding to harsh and off the wall strangeness (sometimes leading people to describe their style as "psychedelic"). Clean guitars appear here and there, often with reverb and delay which assists in the moody sections and the sometimes jazzy or psychedelic parts. The bass has a dull fuzzy tone and vibrates into the super low rhythms. The drums, while minimal are played skillfully and use interesting fills and various techniques to avoid the simplistic plodding characteristic of doom metal and most especially funeral doom. They even work into jazzy sections in songs such as "NOXBC9701040". They are low in the mix and often buried in the dull hazy fuzz of the sound, but they can be heard clearly, especially the thudding of the toms and bass drum. The vocals are normally lower grunts or Greg Chandler's unique piercing high screams drenched in delay which work into the oddities of the guitar effects in the haze of ambiance which often ensues in between lengthy sections of plodding doom. As with most of their albums, they have a brief lapse in style for one song, the speedier death metal track "At War with the Race".
Every aspect of this album is meticulously planned and perfectly composed, with expert musicianship, clear yet murky production, and an atmosphere of darkness, oppression, unease and insanity pervading their sound. You can hear no mistakes, no lapses in the sound where a lame filler riff takes over, and despite playing extremely long songs at such slow paces, they manage to create a captivating and always interesting sound. The use of samples buried in a murky low sound also helps push their morose themes, such as a soldier explaining behind the sounds of artillery exploding and guns firing that everyone is afraid, or a blind man (Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman") screaming "WHAT LIFE? I GOT NO LIFE! I'M IN THE DARK HERE, YOU UNDERSTAND? I'M IN THE DARK!".
Esoteric had nearly mastered their highly original and innovative approach to doom metal with 1994's "Epistemological Despondency", but "The Pernicious Enigma" moves them to the most unattainable heights and to me is their most refined and masterfully executed work. They shame the entire funeral doom subgenre, which is marred by boredom, simplicity, faggy goth and "atmospheric" death/doom styles, and worst of all trendy drum machine-using bedroom projects. They stand as perhaps the most dark, eerie, depressive, bizarre and well-put together band to come out of the doom metal genre, and certainly the best to emerge from the second wave (early 90s and onward). This album is recommended to doomers of all types, and really anyone fascinated by the strong musicianship and atmosphere that can only be delivered by the mighty, powerful and unstoppable Esoteric. For those who were introduced to the band by their most recent effort "The Maniacal Vale", feast your ears on this one and experience what they are/were really capable of. It may take quite a few listens to pierce this gem, as its sound is not as simplistic as it may first appear, but to me it's well worth it as this album remains near the top of my overall favourites.