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I've held off nearly two years on reviewing this album, mainly because I was markedly underwhelmed by it at first. As a rule, I prefer Skyfire's first album "Timeless Departure" over the rest of their discography, but nonetheless respect these guys as a cohesive, ever-evolving unit. Not two of their releases sound alike, they are always pushing the boundaries. Stagnation has no home here.
Which is why I decided to leave "Esoteric" in my car's CD player, and basically used it as the soundtrack of my life for the last two months; the consummate assessment. Over time I have grown to appreciate the maturity the songwriting exudes, and the new-found complexity to some of these epic tracks. Obviously "Esoteric" shares the most in common with "Spectral", but the latter followed fairly based formulae regarding song structure. Here we have anthems like "Misery's Supremacy" and the experimental "Darkness Descending", both of which twist and evolve their way to become two of the best tracks the band has ever released.
The flaw that initially made me uneasy was the way the album begins. We have an epic, if not run-of-the-mill orchestral intro, which builds up to the slow beginning of "Esoteric". I just don't agree with the track placement here. The self-titled track is the most straightforward cut on the album, probably the best example to show a newcomer what "Esoteric" is all about; concise and to the point.
Brainchilds Edlund and Hanner continue their dual guitar-keyboard assault; however while as usual with Skyfire, the keyboards are obviously programmed. The keys take a more reserved role here, adding welcomed atmosphere in just the right places. "Seclusion", however, is a real throwback to their first album, brimming with classical melodies and chest-pounding string sections. Johan Reinholdz (Andromeda) brings a swagger and repletion with his guitar input never before seen by Skyfire fans. Some great solos and intoxicating riffs lurk within "Esoteric".
The departure of vocalist Henrik Wenngren was of much concern, but Joakim Karlsson proves to be an apt suitor. He boasts a superior range and fits the music here quite well. I don't think a better replacement was possible. Kudos to the band for taking their time whilst procuring a new frontman. Joakim Jonsson continues to improve his capability on the kit. He boasts quite a diverse skill set, punctuated by a good (if not great) production job, which leaves us with a huge, epic soundscape only at the cost of some of the bite of the rhythm section.
What we are left with is an ambitious effort, but as a result some of the tracks tend to blur together. All of the aforementioned tracks are choice cuts, while the rest of the album fluctuates in the vicinity of average, if only because there is so much to take in with each song. I think what is most polarizing here is the lack of initial accessibility, let it sink in and you're in for a treat. They really gave it their all this time, these Swedes. They've got me on their side.