~ an essay on the music of ISIS, a metal band.
Tasking myself with writing a bit about ISIS, perhaps my favorite band, certainly among my most personally revered, I wield the undertaking with the satisfactory burden of both describing their sound x aesthetic — and why I hold them so dear. No easy task, on either front. Complex to the point of inscrutability, ISIS is a definite acquired taste; I can only say with confidence that they are a damn good one.
First and foremost, the band takes its name after the ancient Egyptian goddess of divine motherhood who governs the natural world with compassion; vocalist x guitarist Aaron Turner speaks of the Jungian exploration of personal femininity, and the chaos of the other, more shadowy and primordial selves within as a major theme of their creations.
Part-rock, part-sludge, part-psychedelia — all Metal. Transcending a definition, and out of fear of falsely squaring them into any singular categorization, ISIS’ submissions can best be named as post-metal. Their music features inspiring aspects of many genres and styles and sounds beyond conventions, including metal. Unique and powerful in their compositions, the band has only five proper albums, with another comprised of demos and reinterpretations, a slew of finely recorded live shows, and other collaborations, remixes, early EPs. Their work can now be marked by an endpoint; ISIS broke up in 2010, collectively saying that they had “done everything we wanted to do, said everything we wanted to say.” Leaving with their original artistic purpose fulfilled, each band member moving on to pursue other projects, ISIS left their people with finely crafted, practically infinitely re-listenable artifacts of continuous discovery.
~ On May 18, 2010, Isis announced their decision to break up following their final tour, with their final show to be in Montreal — the location of the band’s very first show — on June 23, 2010. Isis collectively stated they have “done everything we wanted to do, said everything we wanted to say,” and, as part of an agreement made by the band at its formation, it did not wish to be faced with the possibility that it would “push past the point of a dignified death.
ISIS’ records, flowing with multiple years of rather conscientious durations in between their releasing, present to their audience a set of evolving and intensive stories, housing deliberate yet ambiguous themes that unfold slowly, theatrically, and sometimes only to long-returning suitors; the avant-garde rock quintet’s arrangements seem to motivate experimentation and equally brutal and cerebral instincts upon both the player and listener.
ISIS’ disco, at the start of one’s aural wayfaring — or even now as a vet to their ventures — makes for a feel closest to a traveler standing at the lapping coast, where the ocean foam meets the sand, where the infinite horizon of those fathomless depths invite the wanderer to the pleasure of a luxurious doom between those strangely calling waves near and far. They called me then, when I first waded in, just as they call me now, as I swim the open waters toward something greater, beyond their final horizon.
The journey into ISIS begins and ends with layers; layers of guitar chords and drum breakdowns and ambient keys and the bassline backing it all. They make heavy metal, but they also craft orchestrations, spirals of sound that resolve to be more than the sum of their parts. ISIS consciously works to create a sprawling landscape of sound, with each layer adding some new ambience or threshing current to the flow. They invite the listener to bask in an at-times deafening but always distinctive quilt of harmonies, discords, vibrations. The soundscapes surround and embody the listener; there is nowhere to hide, no place to turn from their compositions’ panoptic presence.
ISIS’ musical hallmarks can be said to be the ingenious utility of repetition and evolution.
If metal was a body, percussion would be its spine, the reliable beat-keeping nodes holding everything together, upright and strong — busy and flexing arms as the chugging and soloing lead and rhythm guitars — churning, constantly supporting legs as the bass — the keys and electronica as the skin and hairs covering the form, the sensitive receptors undergirding feeling, emotions, the gooseprickling initializing slants of raw responsiveness to the wider environment’s scape. Grandiose metaphor now to-be-finished, the vocals then match Man’s voice 1:1 ~ the imperfectly articulating language of conscious understanding, the enlightening sound of human cogency so distinct from the remainder of the soundscape being built, yet crucial in its presence. For ISIS, this body is complete; their vocals, harsh or clean or droning on to elsewheres, are simply another layer within the chaotic mix, another method of conveying their form, their evolving expressions as an artist. Their songs are a body, head to toe, an experience of a Man alive and animated, going somewhere worth going ~ going *nowhere* at all.
That body’s movement — a sprint, a heavy lumbering lope, or a simple walk along a natural landscape, into the ocean’s depths — builds with perforce energy. ISIS’ layers compose a *conversation* of instruments, casual and among friends, effortless, yet carrying an atmosphere meaningful and venturing upon personal ambitions and even vulnerabilities (i.e. a good conversation). This convo transitions from topic to topic confident in the resolutions, or without need of them, without heed to an underlying superstructure or the recurrence of any known convention, let alone a chorus. Freeform and tranquil but ascending in some way with the necessary energy earning its emotional chops and toils, an ISIS song builds its layers to an inevitable and satisfying and climactic release.
Most delightful of all, these conversations can be re-examined and re-experienced with the climax re-delivered again and again with both precision and novelty, something new gathered from every rep.
Each ISIS album introduces a thematic confluence of criticisms, worries, despairs, both personal and sociopolitical. More painting than novel in their articulations, the lyrics remain poetic and ambiguous in word-by-word enunciation. Every ISIS song, vocalized or strictly instrumental, coheres into a story to be crafted if only within the mindscape of the individual listener.
~ Most of Isis’ releases revolve around a theme. While each release has its own unique theme, many of the major releases interconnect. Turner has stated: “we wanted to have albums that weren’t just grab-bags of songs but rather a cohesive experience from beginning to end, from the music to the lyrics to the layout of the record.”
- Celestial (2000) ~ https://isistheband-ipecac.bandcamp.com/album/celestial-2013-remaster
- Oceanic (2002) ~ https://isistheband-ipecac.bandcamp.com/album/oceanic-remastered
- Panopticon (2004) ~ https://isistheband-ipecac.bandcamp.com/album/panopticon-remastered
- In the Absence of Truth (2006) ~ https://isistheband-ipecac.bandcamp.com/album/in-the-absence-of-truth
- Wavering Radiant (2009) ~ https://isistheband-ipecac.bandcamp.com/album/wavering-radiant
- Temporal (2012) ~ https://isistheband-ipecac.bandcamp.com/album/temporal
~ “I feel there’s a lot of emphasis these days placed on explaining everything in such a fashion that there’s really nothing left for the listener or reader to explore themselves. It’s all spelled out. So it’s interesting to leave some of that stuff open-ended so they have to do a little bit of legwork themselves.” ~ Aaron Turner
ISIS implicitly asks one to evolve alongside their songs, albums. Celestial’s blasting heavy metal soul becomes a welcome foundation when all the albums have been traversed. ~ Oceanic’s deep-seated primordial yearnings cause one to dig into themselves, their own inner waves, in the continuous experiencing of its currents. ~ Panopticon’s slow-burn builds cerebral, fearful vigors, a bass-driven emotional core urges self-examination in the wider, more social and existential contexts. ~ In The Absence of Truth seeds immersion and melody and mysticism within its dreamscapes of power and drama and godlike light and gloom. ~ Wavering Radiant constructs a tale of flesh and blood, of life and death, of harrowing reigns scribed as grey and pale but growing bright and stronger to the very end.
Every song is a poem, and every poem is gifted its myriad reinterpretations.
Tendrils extend from the cloudy black mass
They slither and slide through the ones and zeroes
Prophecy of collapse unfolds
Last grains of sand spiral down the hole
Chance has graced me with a gift
Grasp at gold before dark descends
Sun beats down and panic reigns
In this time of ending
Eyes shut, feet bare
For this journey, I’m unprepared
I still remember the first moment where ISIS really *clicked* for me, and I got it. I was in college, studying in the library, listening to Panopticon. Not for the first time. When I got to track five, Syndic Calls, and my reading or my math or my latest flash card memorization tech stalled for a moment and I turned my mind completely to a meld to the moment of the music ~ I realized that the song was still going. Going and going, Syndic Calls just kept going. And I felt the power in such a thing. The power of the song’s cascading build to wherever it was going, somewhere I wanted to be. I understood the power of the album, then, the endeavor of the band. From then on, I heard ISIS with a different set of ears.
That power, that core emotional release held away within every ISIS song, to be built to, dug away unto, discovered with heartfelt animus ready-or-not for the venturing — this was exactly the kind of music I’d long been looking for.
Metal, by its very volume and sound and general conceiving, is an ominous art. Necessarily so, heavy metal implies a darkness, a malevolence. ISIS separates themselves with the introduction of mystery, of emotions elicited more complex than rage, of passions that do not come from specific chords but from fully realized soundscapes steadily layered and cascaded into softened creation before being toppled in loudening destruction. With their music, ISIS compels the ominous, but also the sublime. ISIS makes music that is beautiful, but also dangerous.
Instrumental tracks like Altered Course nearly reduce me to tears; Threshold of Transformation (the seed of the namesake for this blog) make me think of my entire life, my past, present and future all at once with perforce emotional force that I cannot explain or name or fully control. Such emotions are ineffable and nearly unconscious. I would call every ISIS album a kind of unconscious journey, each song’s landscape mapping itself to the heart and the psyche and the soul in ways that cannot be articulated, or understood to the outside eye. Every album must be experienced many times before they can be seen, let alone judged.
ISIS — “Altered Course” live
Unlike practically every other band or artist I can think of, I will point to no single ISIS song as an exemplification of everything they can offer. There is too much; there are too many layers, too many evolutions to their telos for a singular track to boil them back down into their core component hooks and riffs and tricks. There is no trick to the attractions at all. It is music meant to be delved, sunk into, zoned out amidst. ISIS washes over you and through you, like the fear in Paul Atreides’ mantra, with only you remaining on its other side, absorbed and empowered with the unnameable energies of their monolithic works. I will say that ISIS has some of the best, most evocative album-closing tracks I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing in Hym, Grinning Mouths, Garden of Light, Threshold of Transformation.
~ “To luxuriate in the details, to fully receive the melodies and tones and the bewildering interplay of every element, Isis demand not merely active, not athletic, but something like Olympic listening.” ~ https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/13009-wavering-radiant/
https://youtu.be/gPRK3TNQyus ~ ISIS Live (Celestial) — Los Angeles, CA 2018
~ ISIS’ final performance
The aural litany of an ISIS album reiterates and recapitulates and reconfigures until an evolution becomes inevitable. ISIS is ‘post-metal’ to the global communities that collectivize their opinions upon the categorized place of any artistry; to me, they are “World Metal.” Representing more than individual events or stories or concepts, transcending drama or tragedy or even the ominously sublime despairs they craft into auras, past metaphysical monsters or our historical place within the universe, even disregarding the politics of surveillance and the coming privatization of Mankind to inhumane institutions of control and coercion, rising over the primordial waves of the forever-churning oceans — ISIS is a world in of itself, with a life of its own, with beating heart and a sincere sense of place to its flows. ISIS builds and falls and carries on a cycle all its own. ~
Looms caked in
The act unknown
Actor in sleep
Here I enter
And here I see
The circle and
Bones made in haste
The winds to
Amorphous specter turns
From old to new
Rests in faith beside me
We wait for the quiet fire
To be born and there it is
Embodied by a boy
His voice small and grey
Whispers smoke to the chosen
Upon our heads
He places crowns
Sewn with hiss and higher tones
The boy presses whispers into her
And they bathe in valley’s pale rain