A collection of top songs featuring Isis.
Isis plays metal. But it's no stretch to consider the group alongside devotees to drone, sludge, noise, or blip -- all those artistic sublevels spill out on the papery fringe, anyway. And that's why Oceanic: Remixes/Reinterpretations is such a powerful project. The collaborators here are continuing Oceanic's restless evolutionary cycle, so their results are free to be loud, soft, or somewhere in the foggy between. Of the 13 tracks featured on this two-disc set, 12 originally appeared on a series of 12" EPs; disc two's second version of Tim Hecker's "Carry" interpretation is exclusive. Hecker's "Carry [First Version]" elongates the seesaw notes in Isis' original, stretching them with ropes of warping electric guitar and letting a soft ambient texture sift in toward the end. Christian Fennesz's work with "Weight" has an equally powerful gravity -- somewhere near its halfway mark he suspends the track in a glitchy loop that's as captivating as it is minimal. There are two takes on "Maritime." Mike Patton's involves various tricks from his bag of scary vocal whimsy, like an insane child prodigy taking drugs for fun, and Teledubgnosis turns in a lengthy version informed with splashes and echoes of their experimental dub, as well as washes and whispers -- like a city outside the window -- that approach ambient. After the headiness of Remixes/Reinterpretations' first disc, it's cool to hear disc two launch with the splotchy, raw guitar that kicked off Isis' "Beginning and the End." That said, Venetian Snares (aka Aaron Funk) runs that consistent guitar through the fringe techno paces, with intermittent percussion twitters and sudden pockets of space to showcase the original's vocal. Other highlights: Dälek's Oktopus thickens "False Light"'s bottom end and adds Tron sound effects, but keeps Aaron Turner's roar; noisy New Yorkers Destructo Swarmbots tackle "From: Sinking, To: Drowning" and re-imagine it as something recorded inside a hissing ventilation shaft; and J.K. Broadrick's meandering version of "Hym" connects Isis and Oceanic: Remixes/Reinterpretations to the various reconsiderations of Godflesh's catalog that have appeared over the years. ~ Johnny Loftus, Rovi
Isis pushed the envelope so far on 2002's Oceanic and 2004's gloriously pretentious concept album Panopticon that they spawned countless imitators, which is the greatest form of flattery in some quarters. In the Absence of Truth is the fourth full-length from Isis. This set is not a brave leap forward -- most of us haven't caught up with the last one, and Oceanic spawned an even more experimental set of remixes in 2005 -- but a further look up the holy mountain to a new plateau, a hike to sacred ground. Thank the gods. On these nine tracks, Isis never nervously explore; instead they seem to know exactly what corners to look into, what crags to reach in and grab onto, what caves lead to a blinding light that holds within it both everything and nothing. Isis is in full command this time out and as an album, In the Absence of Truth is as solidly explosive and as adventuresome as Panopticon, but their elemental control over the music is greater, therefore creating a more even production. Aaron Turner's vocals still etch an unclean line between half-sung and guttural roar. The lyrics are oblique and the voice is back in the mix of that nearly unrestrained savage wail of guitars, basses, drums, and keyboards. The pace is deliberately slow and circular on all cuts. Produced and engineered (again) by Matt Bayles, the sonic attack may be measured, but it is also pregnant with beauty and ferocity, with a guitar sound that is singular in the world of heavy metal and underground rock. While the opener "Wrists of Kings" is fraught with thundering tom toms, a shimmering Hammond organ, and counterpoint guitars and basses, it's rhythm is the key to its melodic frame. Turner's singing is in plain voice, but it's modal, another instrument to denote the passing of changes in the music's forms from taut, tense moments to sparse, open ones, though it's suffocating nonetheless. The sharp contrast is found in the very next cut, "Not in Rivers, But in Drops," which once more kicks off with those huge drums while traces of Vini Reilly from the Durutti Column enter the center of the mix and form an idea that the melody of the track just moves off from. Its gets very loud, beautifully articulated, yet reverb-drenched vocals and Jeff Caxide's bass rumble to signify something else is afoot. A brief instrumental interlude ends in raucous, brash calamitous heavy metal that uses single frames from King Crimson's "Lark's Tongues in Aspic." The entire album could be summed up in these two tracks, gorgeously wracked though they are with violence and brutal sensuality. But it goes from here; there's all this movement, where concentric circles ("In Root and Thorn," "Firdous E Bareen") are drawn and shattered to oblivion with a vengeance ("Dulcinea," "Holy Tears," and the closer, "Garden of Light"). It's this last track that gives an aural view of the big nothing inside the light (void) that is comprehensively full and empty, that is so relentlessly pursued on In the Absence of Truth. But it's viewed not with a trained scholar's eye, or with critical distance, but with heavy metal's damaged eardrums on some crazy quest to unseat everything and anything in its path by reaching inside the ache of beauty and turning it inside and showing us what it really looks like, and what it took to get there. Isis has a sound that can be copied, imitated even, but not equaled. This is simply because the patience and discipline it takes to create a sonic world and then destroy it makes no sense to most. Isis have been onto something from the very beginning and got to the edge of the abyss with Oceanic. Panopticon took an oppressive yet wonderfully curious view of its surroundings. In the Absence of Truth takes them into its dark heart squalling, whispering, crawling, drunkenly falling into its center, punching, screaming, and kicking until there is nothing left but silence. This is rock in the 21st century, anything less is cowardice. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
Isis' first official release, this 1999 EP shows off a few different facets of the band's hardcore/doom/sludge/metal style, which at this stage was already pretty impressive despite not yet having fully developed to the point it would on subsequent efforts. From the hateful screaming and dense guitar/bass sludge of "Charmicarmicarmicat Shines to Earth" to the pummeling riffs and downshifting grooves of "The Minus Times" and on through the discordant guitars and more stretched-out song structure of "Red Sea," the band's influences (some of which are plainly acknowledged in the liner notes) show through pretty clearly: the Melvins, Earth, Bastard Noise, Eyehategod, Soilent Green, Neurosis, Coalesce, etc. That it is to say, Isis is drawing on a who's who list of underground heavy-music gurus, and if this EP feels a little bit more like them "doing their homework" than a later album like Celestial does, it still outshines the work of many of their peers. The CD version of The Red Sea contains 21 minutes of additional, non-filler quality material taken from a 1998 demo, bringing the disc's total length up to 36 minutes. Thus, the CD is an especially good deal for Isis fans, though it should be of some interest to fans any of the above-mentioned groups, too. ~ William York, Rovi
Oceanic is the next logical step for Isis after the ugly, grandiose Celestial, the Aaron Turner-led outfit's second full-length looking simultaneously inward and outward, reaching into the nether regions of outer space while still keeping its feet firmly earthbound. Yes, it's an ambitious record, one that isn't immediately consumed and digested -- rather, it consumes and digests the listener with grand and hypnotic waves of sound. Songs blur together as aggressive, post-hardcore guitar riffery trades with lengthy, meditative bouts of electronic exploration, a technique that would result in plodding, pretentious mush in less capable hands. Instead, Oceanic successfully mirrors the dense, unimaginable power of its namesake, combining the minimalist metallic art of Godflesh with the bipolar mood swings and Black Sabbath muscle of West Coast brethren Neurosis. Turner's deathcore growl-shouts serve to puncture the instrumental tension that balloons slowly and painstakingly inflates throughout the album's 63 minutes, with ex-Dirt Merchants singer Maria Christopher occasionally drifting hazily into the arrangements. "Weight," at nearly 11 minutes, doesn't necessarily move as much as it evolves toward its goal, starting with lazy, but purposeful, melodic whale songs before logically concluding with Christopher's repetitive dub vocal and a droning organ suggesting spiritual rebirth. Only Isis could get away with writing hardcore hymns about the inevitability of elemental forces and pull it off with such conviction and attention to detail. The album may initially seem to exist in hazy head space, but clarity comes with further submergence, assuming you're willing to lay back and float, letting the water take you into both conscious and subconscious realms. Oceanic is a masterfully complex symphony of majestic noise and melody, an all-consuming trip into the earth and mind that defies genre and, often, description -- simply put, a triumph. ~ John Serba, Rovi
"Hall of the Dead" opens Isis' fifth album, Wavering Radiant, with a slow, ominous sound as if signaling the start of a science fiction/horror movie, before the band kicks in forcefully. "Threshold of Transformation" concludes the disc with the same strategy in reverse, as the band's stately hard rock suddenly gives way to a quieter, moody theme after more than nine minutes. And right in the middle of the album comes the becalmed under-two-minute title track, prefaced by more ambient music at the end of the first ten minutes of "Hand of the Host." Thus there is a structure to Wavering Radiant, which is hardly a typical heavy metal album, even if it has many of the trappings of one. The raging guitars of Aaron Turner and Michael Gallagher are certainly typical of the style, as is the locked-in rhythm section of bassist Jeff Caxide and drummer Aaron Harris, while Turner alternates between normal singing and the sort of heavy metal growl that sounds like a wounded bear. (The vocals are mixed a notch or two below what would be required for there to be a chance of comprehending their meaning, another familiar metal procedure.) But a big difference is provided by keyboardist Clifford Meyer, who provides texture, filling up the overall sound and also adding ethereal touches that sometimes make Isis reminiscent of Pink Floyd, especially as the lengthy tracks stretch on into their seventh and eighth minutes. Wavering Radiant works as a single piece of music rather than a series of songs, and it is cohesively played by an ensemble that is more interested in the dark majesty of metal than its potential for expressing anger. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi
If the glacial dynamics of previous metal and hardcore abstractions Celestial and Oceanic didn't prove that Isis was a heavy band in every sense, then Panopticon should do the trick. The title comes from 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham's prison design, which was later referenced by Michael Foucault in the 20th century. The idea is that a centrally placed guard or watcher can keep track of a large number of prisoners, and it excited Bentham and concerned Foucault. Heavy stuff for a metal band, huh? Both are quoted in the liner notes, bookended by aerial industrial photos laying out society's open sprawl. It fits perfectly with the epic music on the disc itself, which is as angular as post-rock forefathers Slint and as cosmically expansive as Neurosis, yet closer to the intensity of hardcore than either of them. Panopticon has the same cagey wall of noise as Oceanic, although the end product here is a little more polished. Aaron Turner is still howling and growling, but he's less reluctant to actually sing, just as the music is more inclined to stretch out into Pink Floyd's velvet atmospherics, which were a part of Oceanic, too, but just not as pronounced as they are here. Turner's lyrics are impenetrable, buried in the mix, but when they do pop through the haze of guitars and electronics they're appropriately weighty and tied to the omniscient paranoia of the title. ~ Wade Kergan, Rovi
While bands like Neurosis and Godflesh might have laid the foundation for what would be called post-metal, it was Isis that built the house, not only codifying the conventions of the genre, but continually redefining them with each successive album. When the band announced they were calling it quits in 2010, it was an announcement that reverberated throughout the world of experimental metal, but it would not be the last anyone would hear from them. Giving fans one last chance to drink from the well before it dries up completely, Temporal explores the deeper corners of the bands catalog with a collection of B-sides, demos, and remixes. While B-sides like "Way Through Woven Branches" and "Pliable Foe" from the band's vinyl-only split with the mighty Melvins, or covers of Godflesh's "Streetcleaner" or Black Sabbath's "Hand of Doom" from the hard to find Sawblade EP, will appeal to fans who weren't able to get their hands on those pieces of ephemera the first time around, the real gold here is the demo tracks. On their albums, and even live, Isis were a band that worked with careful, calculated precision, with each moment of every song executed with a sense of purpose that gave their work a very deliberate feeling. This makes it interesting to hear the band working out ideas and figuring things out as they go. Raw cuts of songs like "Wills Dissolve" "False Light," and "Carry" will give listeners a new appreciation for all of the time and sweat that went into creating these sonic monoliths while shedding some light on the painstaking construction involved in some of Panopticon and Oceanic's most powerful moments. Though none of this will be particularly useful to anyone who isn't already familiar with the band (and if you're one of those people, run out and buy Oceanic and Panopticon right now), but for the initiated, Temporal makes for an essential and illuminating listen. ~ Gregory Heaney, Rovi
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