Anxiety has become something of a very public topic as of late (slide over to Lone Watie’s brilliant review of Leprous’ Pitfalls for a brief discussion). As mental health falls into focus and our darkest demons become no longer taboo, a discussion has emerged. There is, of course, strength in knowing that we are all in this together. That other people suffer the same anxiety, panic, and general unease when the subway train halts to a stop in a tunnel and the lights flicker out. Knowing that our fellow citizens of Earth also worry about paying rent, their mortgage, that pesky car payment, putting food on their table, their family, their loved ones, their own health, every single flight they ever take, etc. To not be fearful is to not be a functioning human. In fact, it’s that response of fear to actual threats that has helped humans stay alive and evolving for so many thousands of years.
Yet, fear becomes the dreaded Anxiety (capital ‘A’) when our fear response is activated without our ability to locate or understand the cause. So, when the subway screeches to a halt in a tunnel and the lights and air shut off, it becomes anxiety. Rationally, we know that everything is probably fine. That in just a few moments the train will lurch into motion and our throats will open allowing precious air to dive into our lungs. Yet we feel that fear anyways. And that, my friends, is Anxiety. Fear without logic. And despite the fact that fear is often very helpful in preserving our existence on this rotating orb of differently-temperatured lava, there is an undying urge to repress that response. There is even a medical movement and endless billions of dollars invested to attempt to drive that instinctual response out of human DNA.
Try to relax, they say. Try yoga, the say. Try meditation, they say. Try exercise, they say. Take these pills, they say. All of these techniques or pharmacological solutions promise to provide relief. How, you ask? They promise relief by slowing down our brains. By lulling us into a sense of security. By drawing our brains back to that moment when our loving parents swaddled us in blankets and goo-goo-gaa-gaa’d into our glassy eyes. When we felt safe and cared for. When we felt like nothing could ever go wrong because we had these people to protect us. But even when we slow down and calm out breathing and focus our mind there is still that unending dissonance hanging in the background like tinnitus. Always there gnawing at our peace and quiet. Threatening to overwhelm and drown us in a mental tsunami of dread and worry—those unwanted chemicals flooding our neural pathways and screaming “run.”
In that way, Esoteric uses A Pyrrhic Existence to highlight that anxiety can exist in the deepest meditations of our heart.The first 18 minutes of the experience provide an unending, slightly undulating undercurrent of anxiety. Guitars and ambient tones siren their call of unease through dissonance and unrest. It’s only after that first 18 minutes have passed that Esoteric bring forth a harrowing melody using all three guitars to interlace the harmony and play. It has been an ongoing theme with Esoteric since their beginning in the early 1990s: displaying endless patience and simultaneously not wasting any time despite their somewhat excessive album lengths.
To that point, Esoteric’s catalog can be a bit daunting. This is their 7th official release. Like this one, most of the rest are full lengths reaching out for the two-hour mark. So there’s no shame in admitting that you haven’t spent weeks of your time on earth digesting their misanthropic version of funeral doom. But, now that you’re here, it’s probably time that you resigned yourself to digging into Esoteric’s catalog, for they are a British powerhouse in the genre. While something of an outlier, A Pyrrhic Existence is as good a time as any to begin your journey. And, if you’re a weathered veteran of their catastrophically isolating sound, this album will represent something of a shift (albeit a natural evolution) in Esoteric’s lung-collapsingly heavy sound.
Like most of Esoteric’s published works, A Pyrrhic Existence spans across multiple discs (or vinyl plates, if you prefer). Like their 2008 masterpiece, The Maniacal Vale, Esoteric clasp tightly to a full sound. While aspects of the album are thin—perhaps a guitar calls out mournfully or a passage provides more ambient reflection—the work as a whole is as oppressive as a 200-pound weighted blanket. Vocals have settled into a throaty, growling delivery gurgling with salty foam as they help keep the pace across the nearly 100-minute run time of this beautiful exploration.
The first disc, characterized by the opening track “Descent” (running nearly 28 minutes itself), delivers on the promise as the aforementioned dissonance tires itself out, opening the paths for the delivery of melodic interspersion of guitars amidst tentative rhythms—each beat a foot grasping blindly for a hold before heading deeper into the chasm. Awakening into “Rotting in Dereliction” begins the tumultuous battle for meaning. As wave after wave of chords crash upon the shores of insecurity, howling vocals cry out for meaning, asking for anything more than this stagnant, disappointing world in which we find ourselves trapped. Fittingly, the underscoring accompaniment is discordant as guitars knife in and out of the background, whispering dissent and parasitic decay into the ear of our spiritual vessel.
The bass guitar pops and plucks as the drums increase speed, ringing out their doomy call like church bells adorning a rotten facade of Christ. There is panic as the guitars establish themselves. Using their multi-guitar approach to full effect, two pound out chords while one guitar spirals into chaos; frantic picking the animation of the riotous cacophony occurring inside an otherwise quiet-appearing mind.
A hallmark of Esoteric, mentioned earlier, is patience, something they use to full brilliance across the first half of A Pyrrhic Existence. Over 40 minutes of laborious introspection conclude in deathly sadness before a fully ambient track highlighted by maudlin keyboards, “Antim Yatra,” begins something of a resurrection. For even when we perceive that we have hit rock bottom there are always untold depths into which to fall. Knowing this well, Esoteric reset the game clock with soft tribal drumming, heralding the anticipation of the utterly bone-crushing twists that are to come in the final 50 minutes.
The second disc (or third vinyl) opens with “Consuming Lies” and a masterfully-produced guitar drenched in delay and chorus that calls to mind earlier Esoteric works such as The Pernicious Enigma. As the hammer falls, Esoteric begin to lean into melodic doom territory. The drums smash out hard-learned lessons of humanity while guitars twist and softly bend around the corners of the mind, making room for vocals that speak of societal demise, disease of thought, rejection of self-awareness and self-critique in favor of gossip, consumption of cheap media, and easily digestible nuggets of lascivious critique. The funeral aspect is stripped away in favor of more moderately paced harsh-vocal doom, dented and dimpled with rolling drum fills and swirling crescendos.
A cohesive work, Esoteric compose masterful decomposition into their work, underscoring the erosive nature of what has become the human experience they are lampooning. Echoes of guitars overlap with synthesizers mimicking wind, rain, and cold to highlight the feelings of isolation and despair. But as patiently as the track degrades it begins to rebuild itself anew. Drums tap out a nearly jazzy tempo as our hero once more begins to face the demise of humanity in favor of technological progress. The dissolution of the freedom of human spirit and the germination of the robotic-biped become interlaced with the composition as vocals become indistinguishable from the subtext of instrumental vocalization.
At 19 minutes, “Culmination” is the most stark track on A Pyrrhic Existence. Opening with a floating lightness that belies the theme of perseverance in the face of certain pointless destruction, a brief moment of calm collectiveness flashes into the mind of the listener. Esoteric efficiently strip away all comfort and calm as vocals and guitars drop into a down-pitched march of acquiescence to the human struggle. The bass softly denotes argument in refusal as it lightly steps into the spaces of emptiness left by the guitar, alternating harmony and dissonance emblematic of our struggle.
Again, this composition slides outside what is previously Esoteric’s comfort zone. Psychedelic elements (wah-wah pedals and whammy bars) combine with nearly industrial rhythms into the most militaristically jarring portion of the album. While it’s ultimately a short-lived bridge in what is a much larger movement, its inclusion is nonetheless crucial. Balancing this is a much more open, theoretical bridge just on the other side of what could be considered the “verse.” A feeling of unrealness and disreality permeates above a pummeling assertion of rhythmic force. We are ultimately drawn into the void—into the nothingness that will demarcate the pointless error of human existence amid a swirling harshness heavily-phased guitars.
The final track, fittingly titled “Sick and Tired,” is shockingly beautiful. Snare rolls and beautiful harmonies call to mind a soft seascape under an endless sky of clouds. Full psychedelia is carried in on the wings of seabirds as Esoteric effortlessly reaches their compositional climax. While they claim that humanity is “paralyzed with apathy,” their music certainly denotes a channel of resistance that is tragic and beautiful at the same time. Much like weeping while laughing, crying through pleasure or rain falling from a cloudless, sun-drenched sky, the pointlessness of existence can be contrasted and combated through the tireless pursuit of artistic endeavors (at which Esoteric certainly excel beyond means).
So never fear, for anxiety will find you in the calmest, quietest moments of reflection. Anxiety will tighten its grip on your throat, squeeze your bowels and wrench open your pores to release acidic perspiration. All we can do as powerless, mortal humans is embrace that fear. Allow our instinct to be our guide on a journey into the darkest depths of our soul where the subconscious has hidden phobias, trauma and shame from us. For it is only through embracing that journey, only through facing those hideous emotional monsters, that we can begin to recognize the underlying cause of our anxiety. Shifting from unfounded anxious attacks to logic-based fear, we can defeat Anxiety using our rational minds. Let Esoteric be your guide. Embrace them as your lodestar to the heavens.