On ISIS

~ an essay on the music of ISIS, a metal band.

ISIS: Bryant Clifford Meyer, Michael Gallagher, Aaron Turner, Jeff Caxide, Aaron Harris ~ X
ISIS ~ The Red Sea EP cover

The waves were calling him

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.

ISIS – The Red Sea (EP, 1999)

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.

Celestial (2000) ~ ISIS’ first album – imagine your inner soul being *beaten* with a metaphysical baseball bat for over an hour…
Oceanic (2002) ~ the unfathomable forces of the ocean, blasting and building and shaping and drawing the world into its unfathomable depths ~ the quintessential ISIS album ~ “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.” – https://www.hpb.com/products/oceanic-689230014829
Panopticon (2004) ~ metal landscapes depicting everpresent observation and influence that keeps on *going and going* ~ introduced more advanced *post-rock* sounds and atmospheric, emotional harmonies ~ “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, Rovihttps://www.hpb.com/products/panopticon-689230005728-6971124 // https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/4136-panopticon/
In The Absence of Truth (2006) ~ metal melodies breaking the walls and gardens that we inhabit ~ “…this time adding new elements of electronics, song structure, drumming complexity, and vocal techniques.” ~ “In the Absence of Truth goes further than those albums, but without ditching the signature elements– sharp, delayed/chorused guitar notes (the underwater bunker sound), swirling and ambient keyboards, crisp and dynamic drum and bass, Aaron Turner’s meditational chants and drowning-man growls. Everything’s more expansive and exploratory here, and fresh off Blood Mountain, Isis’s regular recordist Matt Bayles buffs each of the nine tracks with some hazy gauze, lodging a truly sleek, sumptuous, fathomless recording. In fact, the set’s so finely wound that on the first few listens it seemed like the steady diet of Tool had perhaps transformed Isis into an emaciated, innocuous version of their older selves. Not at all, kneejerks– these songs just require close (and repeated) listening to initiate an unravelling (It took me two months before I felt the background music become total immersion). The band’s never been ham-fisted, but In the Absence offers fewer crowd-pleasing quiet-to-loud dynamics– though they are there– and there are plenty of unexpected inversions: Excellent opener “Wrist of Kings” displays a three-minute tension-grabbing intro that slows and swivels instead of cresting, allowing Turner to soar, almost a whisper, over math-y drums. Smashing expectations, a few minutes later the crush and vocal growl emerge, long after the initial build has recoiled.” – https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/9662-in-the-absence-of-truth/
Wavering Radiant (2009) ~ building sounds to full release upon the “threshold of transformation” ~ culmination of ISIS previous themes and sounds into one, singular, *final* album ~ “Wavering Radiant continues the shifts made on 2006’s In the Absence of Truth– namely, more elaborate sonics and increased rhythmic variety– while also emphasizing the finer points of tempo and, especially, melody. Melodicism not only adds a new dimension to Isis’ music but another way to raise the tension, by silhouetting those melodies against their slabs of dissonance. As singer Aaron Turner told MTV, the potent, parallel forms of their past work– one instrument tailing the other– gave way in Absence to a flowing conversation of instruments. The effect there, and more so here, is a veto on thickness for the sake of thickness: The mix instead is stacked with accents and pairings that surprise and complement one another rather than feel redundant.” – https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/13009-wavering-radiant/

ISIS’ records, flowing with multiple years of rather conscientious durations in between their releasing, present to their audience a vibrant wall of sound. Carried within to the conscious listener lies a set of evolving and intensive stories, housing deliberate yet ambiguous themes that unfold slowly, theatrically, and generally 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.

Long you both laid in the sun’s yellow stare
On the edge with eyes rolled back
In the waves we calling him
As he teetered on the edge
The waves were calling him

Yet under this Mortal Sun, We cannot hide Ourselves

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.

(As you draw close, fall to me
I will carry you, true and free
Now that you are here, you’ll swim with me
I am clutching you, true.)

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.

Our skin worn thin
Our bones exposed
Life reduced to ticks


From forest caves and azure skies
We crashed upon this earth
The years, they passed and so did we
Yet, resistance would be formed

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.

Her form transformed, from ash to golden throne

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.

We must leave this place
Of deathly decay

I fell asleep in a world dressed in grey

Garden of Light x Robot Carnival video

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.”

https://www.progarchives.com/artist.asp?id=2187

~ “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.

The individual
Will drifts into space
And the signal
Fills it’s void
~ Celestial album art
The depth of the chasm is infinite
Discover bliss and serenity in drowning
Always object
Never subject

Can you see us? Are we there?
Are we there…
Can you see me? We are watching
We are watching…
“The Panopticon is a machine for disassociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”~ Jeremy Bentham ~ Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison
~ art source
War is waged, blood is spilled
Not in rivers, but in drops
“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” ~ In The Absence of Truth alternate album art
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
Carried down yet another ghostly road
Of a life already lived and faded
Passing yet another broken man
His life in burning iron ruins

The boy presses whispers into her, And they bathe in valley’s pale rain

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.

Syndic calls your name
Show your thinned face at the window

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.

(…all in… all in… all in a day…)
(…a day… it changes everything…)

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.

~ art by John Martin
The Plains of Heaven 1851–3
~ “The sublime evades easy definition. Today the word is used for the most ordinary reasons, for a ‘sublime’ tennis shot or a ‘sublime’ evening. In the history of ideas it has a deeper meaning, pointing to the heights of something truly extraordinary, an ideal that artists have long pursued.”

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/

ISIS Live (Celestial) – Los Angeles, CA 2018
~ ISIS’ final performance
~ The World ~ The World represents an ending to a cycle of life, a pause in life before the next big cycle beginning with the fool. The figure is male and female, above and below, suspended between the heavens and the earth. It is completeness. It is also said to represent cosmic consciousness; the potential of perfect union with the One Power of the universe. It tells us full happiness is to also give back to the world: sharing what we have learned or gained.

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. ~

I’ve arrived
City of
Lucid dreams


Before me
A building
Looms caked in
Inky grime

The act unknown
Actor in sleep
Here I enter
And here I see
The circle and
Bones made in haste

The winds to
Anoint the
Faithful

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
Rain