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An interview with Esoteric written by

"As mentioned in my review of The Pernicious Enigma remix, I was a member of Esoteric for a couple of years, and Greg is one of my closest friends. I used this as an opportunity to delve deep into the back-story of the original album and the process of remixing. As somebody with an avid interest in music production, I encouraged Greg to go into good technical detail about the process, which I feel has resulted in an interesting read for both fans of the original album, and for anybody interested in the creative and technical process involved in making a record."

Firstly, thanks for doing this interview, Greg. Can you give us an update on what the band has been up to since we last interviewed you for How goes the work on the new album?

Hi Kris, thanks for the interview! Since the last interview we've been gigging, touring, doing the occasional festival and working on writing new material. It has been pretty slow going to be honest, with rehearsals being less frequent than in earlier years, due to work, other commitments and life in general getting in the way. We do have a lot of new material written though, and the seventh album will be another long, double album.

Can you give us a quick rundown of the background/circumstances the band was in whilst writing 'The Pernicious Enigma', and whilst making it? From reading the biography section in the album sleeve, it seems like a large proportion of the band's craziest adventures were squeezed into the few years surrounding this record!

Well, most of us were either working part-time, studying or unemployed back then, so it was a good time for creativity. We had a lot of time to put into the band and we were rehearsing twice a week most weeks, and up to 3 or 4 times a week in the run up to the recording session. We were playing the odd show in London or Birmingham, with other death and black metal bands, some of which went on to be very successful. We had a tour of Europe, mostly in Germany in spring 1995 that was cut short after the 7th gig when one of our guitarists, Steve fell down a manhole at a squat we played in Jena when he went to take a piss outside. There wasn't a toilet in the venue. He fell into the manhole with one leg remaining above ground and he broke and dislocated his kneecap on the leg that went down. His kneecap was literally moving from one side of his leg to the other. We took him to a hospital the next day where we were told that he needed an operation. So we took him to the airport with the intention of flying him home, but short notice flights were hugely expensive and we just didn't have the money to pay for it. We were already losing money hand over fist, so we decided to play one more show and then drive home, cancelling the rest of the shows in Germany, Poland and Belgium. A couple of months later and we were touring the UK with Inverted from Sweden. We started off in Belfast, then played Berwick on the Scottish border, but about an hour after we set off from Berwick for the next gig in London, the van caught fire and we had to bail out. It was a mid-engine VW van and had been burning oil the whole trip. Gordon saw flames coming up the side of the van, so we stopped as quickly as possible and jumped out before the van had even come to a halt. The flames spread through the whole van really quick. We managed to save some equipment but most got destroyed in the fire. It took a good few months after this to get back on track.

The whole back catalogue is being reissued on vinyl via Aesthetic Death (only 1999's 'Metamorophogenesis' remains outstanding), but 'The Pernicious Enigma' is the only one that was selected to be remixed. Why was this album remixed whilst 'Epistemological Despondency' (for example) was not? How involved were you in the original mix? Have you successfully achieved what you set out to do with remixing the record?

The main reason we couldn't remix the first album or demo is because they were recorded on 2" analogue tape and we couldn't afford to buy them at the time. Our songs were long and we were using several reels and would have cost almost as much to buy as we paid for the session time. The demo was recorded in 2 days and mixed in half a day and the first album was recorded in 3.5 days and mixed in 1 day. The whole rhythm sections were done live in the studio (drums, bass, 3 guitars), with some overdubs, synths and vocals being done afterward. Pretty much everything was first take, since we had a lot to record and very little time to do it in. We had a much bigger budget from the label with the second album, so we could spend more time in the studio and buy the tapes, which were ADAT's by this time, which are cheap. We used a sound engineer who worked at Rich Bitch studios, but he had no ear for what we were doing really, and although we tried to communicate what we were looking for with the mix and help out, it didn't really translate very well. There were also issues with the multi-track, which was unreliable and slow to sync up and the VCA based automation for the Soundtracs mixing console kept crashing, losing updates, fader movements and so on, so we had a real hard time mixing the album. We only had 24 tracks to work with, which meant that with such layered music a lot of track sharing was going on with different instruments being recorded on the same tracks, therefore making it difficult to mix manually on the desk. It was following the recording and mixing of this album in 1996 that I decided to train to become a sound engineer myself. At the time it was difficult to find a Sound Engineer who had the same vision as we did for our music. I was undecided on which career path to take at the time and this experience helped me make my mind up. Regarding whether I feel I have achieved the original goal or not, I think yes to some degree. It is an improvement over the original and closer to what we were looking for at the time. I am never totally satisfied with anything I do, but at least I feel like I've done the best I could with what I had and the time I could allocate to it.

What gear were you all using at the time of making the album, and how has it changed in the years since? There are a lot of sounds on the record that are quite unique to it, especially some of the lead guitar sounds. Were the sounds you got basically what you were intending or was there a degree of limitation due to the equipment you were using at the time?

We were using whatever we could afford at the time. For the guitars we had Laney 2x12 combo's, using various pedals from Boss and Jim Dunlop and multi-fx from Digitech, Alesis. The bassist was using a Peavey amp, boss pedals and multi-fx. Regarding instruments we had 3 Ibanez guitars and bass, an Aria Pro and a Stratocaster. The sounds we got were exactly what we intended, or at least as good as we could get from what we had to work with. It was a time of great experimentation and we put a huge amount of time into creating all of the sounds before we even booked the studio time. The vast majority of the guitars were recorded through the amps with the fx running through the amps, the rhythm section and rhythm fx were all recorded live with the drums and bass. We then overdubbed the guitar solos, harmonies, clean guitars, vocals, keys/synths and samples. We had pre-recorded some of the key parts to a sequencer before entering the studio, but some were improvised live in the studio. Just a few guitar parts were recorded direct in order to accentuate the stereo effects and give a different character to the sound, the lead at the start of Creation being one such example. We didn't feel that the sound engineer really captured the sound well enough at the recording stage, something I confirmed later on when re-mixing the album.

Some of the multi-fx units from the 90's are really flexible and allow for many permutations in algorithm, routing and a broad palette of parameters to adjust. So we were able to really create some extreme sounds that most bands would probably consider ridiculous. That is something that is largely missing from multi-fx units today apart from at the very high end, which is not easily affordable – they are too dumbed down, created for ease of use and to pander to musicians that just want to use quick presets, not for bands like us where the sound is manipulated and grows to enhance the atmosphere. We get to know our gear inside out, making sure we understand every single detail and possibility in order to create unique and otherworldly sounds.

I have definitely read before that the demo ('Esoteric Emotions: The Death of Ignorance') and the debut full length 'Epistemological Despondency' were recorded pretty much live in a few hours. Was this also the case for 'The Pernicious Enigma'?

We had more time for recording The Pernicious Enigma, due to the label giving us a better budget following the first album release. We still recorded the whole rhythm section live in the studio, drums, 3 rhythm guitars and bass were all done at the same time with a guide vocal. We then overdubbed the clean guitars, harmonies, solos, vocals, synths and samples. We were using a session drummer at the time, and so he needed a fair bit of time to get the drums down.

Who did the artwork for the original album? Why was it decided to use the current Esoteric logo on the front of the vinyl, rather than the one found on the original CD?

Simon Phillips, one of our guitarists at the time created the cover artwork, logo and main pieces for the album. It was all created by hand using pen, paint and an airbrush. Steve Peters, one of the other guitarists, created the graphics for the inner pieces of the booklet and handled the layout and design. The new logo was used on the vinyl cover simply because that has been our logo for the past 12 years and is the first logo we have stuck with for more than one release. It always changed for each album prior to releasing the fourth album, "Subconscious Dissolution into the Continuum". Perhaps if it had been a CD re-issue we would have stuck with the original logo, but since the original artwork was being re-formatted for the vinyl format, we felt it was better to use the current logo.

At the time of making the album you were not playing guitar in the band, just singing (as well as writing a good proportion of the songs). How did your switch to guitar come about? Was it an easy transition to make? You obviously had some ability already as you were writing songs. This album also seems to be the peak of the vocal FX processing in the band, with tracks like 'Stygian Narcosis' showcasing very innovative voice sampling and morphing techniques that I still haven't heard elsewhere to this day. Is it fair to say that the amount of crazy vocal effects you could do had to be scaled back a little (whilst still being totally out there of course!) due to having to play guitar also?

I started playing guitar alongside doing the vocals when one of our guitarists, Simon Phillips, left the band the day before our short tour of Germany in 1997. The logical choice was for me to take the role since I had written a fair chunk of the material and already knew how to play the songs. It took a little getting used to at first, mostly because of having to do vocals, play guitar and then control the effects for both vocals and guitar at the same time. This is why I found I eventually had to use a headset microphone, because with a static mic on a stand, I literally couldn't reach all my pedals or balance on two sets of pedals at the same time and stay close to the mic. I had to be free to move and this was the easiest option. The crazy effects were not scaled back due to the transition to guitar, no. The sampling and voice morphing I can still do while playing because I set it up so that the signal of the voice triggered the recording and looping, and then I use expression pedals to modulate the sound. With 3 guitarists in the band, if, at some points, I needed to stop playing it wouldn't have been the end of the world. The main reason they were most extreme and experimental on that album is because it suited the album and also because at that point, the Alesis Quadraverb 2 that I was using at the time was very flexible in how it can be programmed and this album was the first album I used it on, so I really went to town with exploring the sounds and settings I could get from it. I also had more free time back then. Following on from this, I didn't want to repeat the same sounds, so used a larger variety of effects units on following albums. It was also partly because I wanted a bit more presence of the dry vocal in the mix on later albums. So it is a combination of factors really.

There have always been multiple songwriters on each album. It seems like on the last two albums especially, this has led to quite a bit of diversity in the songwriting, with the dark and atmospheric songs being mixed with proggy/jazzy elements at times. However, 'The Pernicious Enigma', despite having four credited songwriters, is pretty much monolithic in its dark and uncompromising atmosphere. How is it that the disparate writers were so on the same page as each other? Is this something you feel has changed in subsequent line-ups?

Well, I think with that particular album we had more of a like-minded set of song-writers and everyone was contributing to the songs, regardless of who had written the main arrangement. There was always diversity between the different song writing styles of each member, but it was a very dark album overall. Personally, I think there is still a lot of harmony and still some use of light and shade even back then. The line-up of the band has changed somewhat over the years, so with line-up changes there will be some differences in the song writing. However, I think that a band should progress and evolve the music they create, not aim to create the same album over and over, because it is easy to stagnate or become formulaic this way.

I have listened to this record hundreds of times over the years, and know it like the back of my hand. When listening to the remixed version though, there are so many things I feel I am hearing for the very first time, due to the clearer sound. Were there any elements in the mix that you had forgotten about in the intervening years, or anything that surprised you?

No, I also knew the album like the back of my hand. We spent so much time rehearsing and developing these songs before we entered the studio that I always knew what was missing from the original mix, and so I knew what to try to bring out and improve with the remix. Nothing was re-recorded at all, I wanted to stay as true to the original as possible, but just supply a clearer, better balanced mix so that some of the details lost in the original could be heard as they were intended. When I went back to the multi-track tapes and transferred them to the DAW to remix, I was quite disappointed with the quality of the recording. I had hoped to be able to make more of an improvement than I did, but I think in the end I have done what I could with it. At least the feedback has been extremely positive so far.

Obviously the original album has a unique atmosphere that could have easily been lost as part of the remix process. To my ears however, it has been retained absolutely. How did you go about getting the correct balance between a clean and clear mix, and the original 'feel' of the record?

Well, since all of the effects were recorded directly to tape, it was just a case of getting a better sound and balance for the instruments over the original. The atmosphere couldn't be changed too much because I was not looking for something totally different, just an improvement as we were never happy with the original mix of the album.

One of the contributing factors to the atmosphere is the use of samples. For the most part they are taken from extremely well known films (although there are a couple I still don't know the provenance of). However, they fit so perfectly into the album that when I watch the movies themselves I think of 'The Pernicious Enigma' rather than the other way round! They were used a little bit on the first album, but far more so on this one, and then never again since. Who was responsible for them, and why did you stop using them?

Simon created most of the effected samples on the album, but there were a couple taken by others as well and we all had a hand in finding and selecting them. The main reason we stopped using them is because of clearance and copyright issues. As the fan base for the band grew, we knew that we would be more likely to run into problems by doing this and although some of the samples were taken from obscure sources and all samples modified to some degree, it was a risk we didn't want to take again. We have used samples since that time, but these are something we made ourselves.

Would you care to quickly give us a rundown of what was involved in remixing the album from a technical perspective? Were there any things that were particularly challenging?

The first port of call was to transfer the multi-track tapes from the ADAT's to the DAW. I actually did this back in 2011. I had to go to London and hire several ADAT machines and a DAT player, bring it back to the studio and then transfer the audio to my DAW. I was using SSL's Soundscape at the time, but have long since moved to Pro Tools. I started mixing the album in 2011 as Aesthetic Death intended to release the album on 3LP back then, but a deal with Season of Mist to license the fourth and fifth albums meant that they had to take precedence in the release schedule, so it was put on the back burner until Aesthetic Death had released these albums and were ready to release this one. The most difficult part was getting the ADAT machines to behave well enough to get a good, clean transfer. Having used them when I first started engineering in 1997, I knew how unreliable they were. The hire company actually gave me 5 units to use, despite the fact that I had only hired 3. That just goes to show that they had no confidence in them working properly.

After some issues, tape errors, syncing problems, etc, I managed to get a clean transfer. The odd glitch, but I managed to remove most of those. The next step was for me to separate the audio tracks into a more logical workflow and I mixed the album using mostly outboard gear and the analogue mixing consoles – using the DAW for automation, which is how I tend to work anyway. I mixed the tracks to stems and then did some further work on the mix stems before mastering. All of the effects on the instruments were recorded to tape originally as part of the performance. That is something that we still do even today when recording. So the only effects I had to re-create were the drum reverbs and drum effects, which I did on Lexicon PCM91 and Eventide 4000 units and the Alesis Quadraverb 2, where I fortunately still had the modulated delay/reverb patches we used on the original album. The only effect I struggled to re-create was the effect I on the Thunderclap sound on the Song "A Worthless Dream". That was not committed to tape at the time, but run live during the mix, same as with the drum effects. I used what I thought was the original patch from the session, but it still sounded different. As far as I could remember I got the specific sound by overdriving the input of the unit and modulating the parameters with an expression pedal. I tried that approach again and I managed to get it close, but I couldn't get it exactly the same. In the end I had to also blend in a fragment of the original mix from that point and time align it to the track in order to eliminate any phasing. Following your suggestion actually, to use a snippet of the original :)

Other than this, there were no real difficulties with the mix itself, other than discovering that the recording quality was lower than I had anticipated, which made it difficult to shape the sounds exactly how I wanted. Getting the album to fit on a 3LP without compromising the running order was also tricky because we didn't want to change the order due to the way the tracks all interlock with the interludes, and we didn't want to drop any tracks either. In the end, in order to keep the running time down to a more reasonable level I had to trim the length of a couple of songs down a bit, on the 2 longest sides. This was just a case of reducing the fade in/out times, interludes and taking a couple of snippets from the one song which I deemed least destructive to the arrangement. The one track I didn't remix was the Improvisation track, since I felt that was so abstract that it would be difficult to mix again and retain the same feel. This was done manually with literally all hands on the mixing desk, with each musician controlling the level and panning of their parts. That is something that would have been impossible to reproduce if taking a more measured approach. Due to the way the album mixes were compiled originally (all done on digital tape), there is a new synth sound on the start of the Improvisation track that was not there before. There were actually ten songs recorded for the album but one didn't make it to the final cut. The synth is the spill over from the previous track that was dropped. I went with this version because I couldn't find the un-compiled mix version of the Improvisation on the DAT tapes, apart from one version which was quite degraded and glitchy.

It seems like the main motivating factor why most bands might add an improvised track to their album would be a lack of material. The album clocks in at a healthy 1 hour 42 minutes even without NOXBC9701040 though, so what was the reasoning behind making this track? Is it something you would ever consider doing again? What's the story behind the title of the track?

Basically, we had a long working title for the track, which is listed in the booklet, but it was too long to use, so we decided to use the ISRC code as the title. Something we hadn't seen before. The song was an experiment, something we had jammed once in rehearsal, but we had no idea how it would turn out. We just chose to do an improvisation in the diminished mode and see what happened. No parts were pre-written or planned, we just literally made it up as we went along and then overdubbed some additional drum hits and cymbals, synths, added some vocal textures. We just wanted to do something spontaneous and different in the studio alongside the structured songs. The release was already going to be a double CD, so we felt it didn't hurt to add an improvisation. If the album were shorter then it probably wouldn't have been used, but it was a bonus track really.

Due to having no permanent drummer at the time, some of the tracks feature programmed drums. It seems to me that at the time it was unusual for a band to use a drum machine that was programmed with such nuances to sound quite human-like (compared to the intentionally machine-like Godflesh for example). 'Sinistrous', especially, has some quite subtle character in its programming. Who was responsible for programming the drum parts? What equipment was used?

The original intention was for the session drummer to learn and record all of the drum parts, but it was a lot to learn and master within the months he had to work on the album and rehearse with us, and so 3 of the 9 tracks ended up with the drum programming we had done when writing the songs. Gordon (guitar) actually played the drums on the improvisation, Steve, Simon and I played guitar and Bryan played bass live in the studio with Gordon on drums and then Gordon overdubbed his guitar. Gordon and Steve then overdubbed some additional cymbals and drum hits, and I recorded some vocal parts. Nothing was re-recorded or edited out as you can probably tell. Just first takes on everything. There are some lyrics for the song, but we didn't print them . They are more like statements than a body of lyrics.

The drums for each song where sampled drums were used had been programmed by the main song writer/contributor of each song. Since we didn't have a permanent drummer, all of the songs were already programmed for drums in order for us to rehearse with. We used an Amiga to program the drums, using OctaMED, and ran them in the studio using an Atari ST running Cubase (midi only). An Alesis D4 was used for the samples and we also used an Akai S1000 for some stuff. Drum programming back then was one sample per hit, not multi-layered, real, recorded samples that you get nowadays, so every nuance had to be programmed in order to get any variety and dynamics into the sound. We weren't happy about using programmed drums for any of the songs at the time, but I guess it turned out ok for the songs we used them on and gave it a slightly inhuman edge.

I know nowadays it would be extremely simple to achieve with computers, but it was probably more difficult back then? With many Doom bands now operating solely with realistically programmed drums, do you think you were 'ahead of your time' in a way with this?

I think we were just very interested in technology regarding sounds and music and the programming of drums was necessary while we progressed without a permanent drummer. We didn't want to slow down the song-writing process while the band was fresh and productive with writing. Yes, programming drums and the palette of sounds available back then was much more limited, pretty much to hardware only, but in a way it was a good thing, because you stay focused on the creative side and don't get bogged down by having too many options.

Personally, this is the Esoteric record I hold in the highest regard, and I know Stu of Aesthetic Death feels the same way. It does seem, however, to be talked about much less these days than your more recent releases. Of course, the last three albums have had a larger label in Season of Mist behind them, and the higher levels of polish make them possibly easier to digest. Do you think there is a split in your fan base between the old-skool and newer fans?

Well, it's natural that an album nearly 20 years old doesn't get talked about much. One of the problems of long standing bands that don't release albums very often is that they have to continually renew their fan-base. I think quite a lot of people identify with bands from the release they hear and like from them first.

It's nearly 20 years since the album was originally released. How was it received at the time? Did you ever think that 20 years later it might still be getting attention, with some (myself and others) happy to use the term 'classic' to describe it?

We didn't have much in the way of expectations back then and ultimately, still don't. We were doing our own thing, not concerned with how it was received at all. We didn't have that much positive feedback during our opening years on the extreme metal scene, so we never had any raised hopes of being successful. Maybe we lacked ambition, but all we really cared about was making horrible music.

And how do you feel about the status of the album? How do you rank it compared to the others? Do you have a favourite track on the record?

I think it was a very productive time for the band and a good time to be in the band. The creating of music, enjoyment of gigs, rehearsing, recording and the general atmosphere of a band is usually dictated by how content and committed all the musicians are. When everyone is pulling in the same direction at the same speed, there is nothing better, but these moments do not last forever, they kind of ebb and flow. I find it difficult to rank our albums, because they are all different and any album is a product of the time and conditions in which it was created. However, in terms of atmosphere, I would say that this album is closer to my heart than most others. I don't have a favourite track, no.

Any final words?

Thanks for the interview, Kris. Your support is much appreciated!

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