The British Doom veterans of ESOTERIC are quite an ambitious lot, and this gargantuan double-album clocking in at more than 100 minutes has already been hailed by some as the best release of 2008, if not the best Doom release of the decade. That's a lot of hype to live up to, and with almost two hours of Funeral Doom it should be obvious that this is not easy listening for the attention deficit or speedfreaks amongst us. I decided to take a deep dive into this seemingly bottomless void of anguish and depression, to see if the favorable whispers surrounding this album are anything more than hollow echoes.
The opening track "Circle" begins in a fairly tame fashion, soothing the listener into a false sense of security with a sorrowful melody. It doesn't take long, however, until the walls start closing in as the riffs come flying at you with crushing power, and the journey to insanity begins. There is little room to breathe once this horrifying slow-moving spiral starts twisting, and the way lyrics dealing with total desperation are lamented through hateful screams does little to easen up the mood. At more than 20 minutes, the song twists and turns, and when it finally lets go you are left in a deserted soundscape that feels just as claustrophobic as the less subtle riff assault. There is no fragile beauty and serenity here, just ugly hopelessness and the unbearably large wastelands of lunacy.
Suprisingly, the pacing picks up for "Beneath This Face", which builds up to a brutal climax, just to begin anew at the same dreadful crawl. This seems to be a dominating feature of "The Maniacal Vale", just as everything comes to its natural climax we are brought back to start, and nothing ever changes. This is mirrored in the lyrics, which also deal with how some circles are impossible to break out of, and that there is no reason to even try changing existance. It's not a very bright outlook, but songs about rainbows and freshly baked cookies would hardly do these spirit-crushing soliloquies justice. "Caucus Of Mind" once again escalates to a full-on assault, and even throws a frantic guitar solo into the mix, but alas it is not to last, and everything turns bleak again. There is no seeming rhyme or reason to this madness, and the walls seem closer than ever as the first of two discs draws to an end.
The second disc begins with a calm and beautiful melody, reminiscent of Finland's DOLORIAN, and feels a lot more accessible than the first 50 minutes. Wrong! Once again the carpet is swept under our legs, and once more I find myself lying on the proverbial floor with a terrible concussion. This is the true incarnation of Funeral Doom, but of course such an immense offering of gloom can be much to swallow for anyone but the die-hards. Luckily there isnt much repetition, and the constantly growing and evolving music does a very good job at keeping your attention for the almost agonizingly long running time. The longest track on the album, "Ignotum Per Ignotius", concludes this monolith in the best way imaginatively, embodying every aspect that has made this such a spectacular journey. The haunting sounds and mournful riffs go hand in hand with the complete loss of sanity that follows, and there is no redemption as it crawls towards its inevitable end.
Even though "The Maniacal Vale" can be a difficult test of the listeners' patience at times, it's hard to deny that ESOTERIC have found almost every good aspect of Funeral Doom and taken them one step further. The result is nothing short of a modern masterpiece within the genre, which strings you along for more han one hundred difficult minutes and leaves you feeling depleted and empty. Those who need to be able to headbang or mosh to their metal should stay as far away as possible, but for fans of the cathartic and crushing this is a must-have. To quote the equally gloomy but distinctively less doomy Andrew Eldritch; this place is hell with walls.
(Online January 22, 2009)