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Well this is certainly different, although not really surprising. The loss of Wenngren was of some concern, but I predicted that the acclimation of Reinholdz's voluptuous leads into the Skyfire mold would trigger some sort of stylistic paradigm shift. This much was evident on much of Fractal, and if you are familiar with the aforementioned EP, Esoteric shouldn't surprise you too much. This is still undoubtedly Skyfire, and credit where credit is due: Reinholdz fits in marvelously, his leads never swaying far from the melodic breadth congealed by Edlund and Hanner over the years.
Perhaps the most striking difference revolves around the forward-thinking songwriting present here. Skyfire's earlier material has always suffered from what I like to call "awkward joins," during which passages clunk and grind against each other, revealing a lack of cohesive vision. I got the broad impression of a number of disparate melodies that were just pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle until they began to sound somewhat coherent. The debut suffered from this the most, and while the band began to shake free from this mold somewhat on Spectral with songs like "Void of Hope" and "A Dead Man's Race," the ejection of this compositional crutch ends up being Esoteric's greatest single improvement over its predecessors. Through this we get a number of very long epics like "Misery's Supremacy" and "Darkness Descending," both of which are among the greatest works Skyfire has ever committed to disc.
Contrasting these we have a number of shorter, more concise numbers that tend to work better in isolated environs. "Seclusion" is a total throwback to Timeless Departure and brings the house down as such, featuring chest-pounding string sections and a more compact take on the melodic excess that made "Dimensions Unseen" a classic. "Linger In Doubt" is harder to categorize but is honestly my favorite song here. It sounds like Nightwish at first, but it really comes alive during the verses (check that riff!) and has a really great, keyboard-driven breakdown later on.
It isn't all wine and roses, however, as both of these disparate songwriting slants yield at least one bum note each. For one, I have never been able to get into the overlong "Rise and Decay," which while featuring a classic Skyfire lead during the chorus, fails to do much of note. Regarding the shorter cuts, "Under a Pitch Black Sky" is just a complete throwaway - no idea why the band is so fond of that one. Esoteric is certainly an imperfect beast, but one can definitely see what the band is aiming for here. The production values are through the roof, Jonsson's kit has never sounded better, and the bass is clearly audible under the towering wall of distortion and orchestration. This approach to the bass was shared on Spectral, and remains a cornerstone in the band's sound, even years after Sjögren's departure.
One major question naturally remains: Is Karlsson an apt suitor to Wenngren? Well on a technical level alone he certainly is, as he has a more spacious, guttural aesthetic to his roars that yields more room for remuneration compared to Wenngren's tortured shrieking. Where he falls short is lyrically. I really don't expect anyone to compare to Wenngren's penmanship, but much of this is just vacuous rambling. We get the usual depressive/rebellious lyrical themes that demand resistance against whatever unseen force belies you, but what is going on during the lyrics of "Linger In Doubt?" Sounds like Karlsson is radiating his general dissatisfaction with social media, which is completely unfit for the Skyfire template. Not a horrible outing lyrically, but improvements could be made.
I'm not going to lie, I listened to this album for nearly three months straight back in 2011 when it got trapped in my barely-functional car CD player, and perhaps this ridiculous familiarity with the material his sullied my opinion. Seriously, I get uncomfortable flashbacks every time I hear the piano intro to "Misery's Supremacy." I still dig Esoteric though, as a Skyfire with real solos and leadwork is always worth checking out. They really gave it their all this time, these Swedes. They've got me on their side.