Retrospective: Isis (1997 – 2010)

 

CELESTIAL (2000)

I can only imagine how exciting Celestial must be for those oblivious to Isis’ existence. It’s a ferocious record. Even for someone such as myself, who was already familiar with a fair amount of the band’s material prior to hearing it, the first listen was a phenomenal experience – it’s the sound of a group with such a devastating conviction about their music, unified by an instinctive – almost telepathic – compositional co-operation. You can hear it 0:52 into the title track, when the explosive low F# riff really kicks in and slams down with the intensity of each of Isis’ five band members really fucking going for it. I don’t think the band have made a record since that could be considered to be as “heavy” as this. Despite being interspersed with brief spells of quiet, it’s the all-out metallic bursts of “Destructing Towers” and “Collapse and Crush” that stay with you as the record draws to a close, battering the ear drums into submissive tinnitus ring.

OCEANIC (2002)

I imagine that 90% of the bands claiming themselves to belong under the umbrellas of “Post-Rock” and “Post-Metal” will reference Oceanic as a colossal influence; its sound has been thieved, rehashed and diluted a million times over, yet even this isn’t enough to prevent it sounding increasingly fresh and exciting with each listen. Vocalist Aaron Turner puts in a stunning performance throughout, with his screams ranging from urgent shrieks to the more guttural yells, and even boasting an impressive singing ability during album-closer “Hym”. Picking out highlights on Oceanic is a near-impossible task, but for me the malfunctioning riffs of “The Other” cause it to edge out as a personal favourite. Unlike the countless albums that spilled out onto the “scene” following the release of Oceanic, this isn’t a mindless collection of loud Vs quiet, with “epic” crescendos and repetition for the sake of it. I hate the term “thinking-man’s metal” (which has sometimes been cringably attributed to the Isis sound), but the sheer amount of thought and effort the band have poured into this record is undeniable.

PANOPTICON (2004)

 It was with Panopticon that I first experienced Isis. There’s something about it that’s cleaner and clearer than Oceanic, with the impact of the heavier moments more akin to a glistening crash of waves as opposed to the earthly rumble of their earlier work. It was “Backlit” that clicked first, with the slow build of the opening sounding as thought it’s suspended on the edge of something beautiful, finally giving way into an ecstatic explosion before taking a dive into darker territory in the second half of the track. Tracks like “In Fiction” and “Syndic Calls” soon followed, and it wasn’t long before I found myself completely immersed in the release as a whole. Although Panopticon proves capable of being fierce when it wants to be, it’s here that you can notice the band shaking off much of the metal genre ties, with the distorted element choosing to channel sweeps of chords and melodies as opposed to thick chugging riffs.

IN THE ABSENCE OF TRUTH (2006)

“In the Absence of Truth” is arguably the weakest Isis effort. It’s far from a bad record – in fact, “Dulcinea” is probably one of the strongest tracks across the band’s back catalogue – but it just doesn’t sound as assertive as the releases that came before it. “In the Absence…” often sounds confused, dragging up Celestial-esque moments and forcing them uncomfortably back into the Isis persona. It simply doesn’t quite work. The production appears to be flatter and damper, and I find myself yearning for the crisp open space of Oceanic and Panopticon. There’s still plenty to enjoy here though, with the aforementioned “Dulcinea” kicking off a consecutive trio of impressive pieces, with “Over Root and Thorn” spilling open from a gorgeous soundscape of mournful guitar drones and desolate pads and “1000 Shards” proving Turner’s ability to intelligently integrate clean vocal melodies into the output.

WAVERING RADIANT (2009)

I have to confess to being relatively underwhelmed by the final Isis LP, despite the fact that the overall response to the record has been extremely positive. It’s a fast-moving record with ever-shifting dynamics and heaps of compositional intricacy, and whilst Wavering Radiant is admirable for the way in which it has clearly been carefully crafted, personally I found it difficult to really immerse myself in these pieces due to the pace at which they morph and evolve. That said, the band thankfully see out their last full-length with one of their strongest tracks to date. “Threshold of Transformation” is fierce 10 minutes, with a simple three-chord progression occupying the build up and eruption of the second half, and a melancholic (yet appropriate) sense of conclusion about the way in which it comes to a close.