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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Isis - Oceanic

 photo 220px-Isis_-_Oceanic_zps5123c6f6.jpg

Isis suffered the unfortunate fate of being one of the few bands to sound mainly only like itself. When some critics experience such a phenomena, they attempt to label, and because the closest genre to what Isis was playing is metal, they got tagged with the rather uncreative moniker, "post-metal." Putting "post" before something is particularly lazy. What comes after post-metal, then? Post-post metal? Then what? Post-post-post metal? P4 metal? Isis' music is easier to describe than to label.
Isis forge out a signature sound on Oceanic, their breakthrough album, and don't stray too far from it. It's actually a pretty simple formula. Long, slowly developing songs. Sparse vocals, almost entirely delivered in a pained yell. The drummer enjoys playing a very drawn out "boom, boom, tap, boom, boom, boom, tap" rhythm, the boom his bass drum, the tap his trademark loosely tightened snare. This leaves lots of room for fills, of which he takes frequent advantage. The guitars are pretty heavily distorted, and usually play out pretty lengthy chord progressions. Leads aren't that active, but are mostly dirty, though at times clean to add a little atmosphere--in fact they sound like light, flickering and bright. The second guitar usually just fills out the sound of the first. The bass lines are long and lumbering, keeping in the spirit of the drums. Add a little keyboard. There really isn't that much mystery, or extreme technicality in the music being played here, despite its reputation. The magic is really in how the simple parts add up, and how frontman Aaron Turner injects some occult touches into the songs--the greatest of which stems from the band's name. There is a little Egyptian influence in the music, particularly on the uncharacteristically light instrumental, "Maritime" (which is also, fittingly, the most nautical-sounding track), but the fact that the band is called Isis colors everything about their sound.
According to Turner, and from what I can tell from the undecipherable lyrics, Oceanic tells the story of this guy who loves this woman, finds out she is in an incestuous relationship with her brother, then drowns himself in the ocean. Who cares, though? When you listen to this album, you pretty much envision whatever you want. For instance, the quite frightening second track, "The Other," reminds me of a torch-lit dock on the Nile, the sun nearly set as a small crowd frantically boards the last boat out of dodge before a night-borne supernatural evil arrives. Whoever is left is in a for a night of terror and death. In fact, the entire album has a Halloween feeling, like when you're out trick or treating, and suddenly you realize you're the last one outside, and all the lights have gone off, and a fog is rolling in. But that's just me.
Oceanic's best track, "Weight," begins with a pretty beautiful ambient intro, before developing into the more standard Isis tune. Instead of Turner's yells accompanying, though, we get some (fitting for the band name) powerful female vocals. The song builds from start to finish, adding more and more tension, or "Weight" if you will, before ending without release, which somehow works better than a catharsis would have. If there's a thing this band really pioneered, it's re-defining the meaning of the word "payoff." Oceanic itself ends with an emotionally powerful instrumental passage that doesn't quite resolve, even in its final crashes.
So there you have it. Oceanic is not the incredibly ground-breaking album it has been billed to be, but thanks to a decent amount of space and the excellent chemistry between the band's members, it is a very good one.

2002 Ipecac
1. The Beginning and the End 8:02
2. The Other 7:15
3. False Light 7:42
4. Carry 6:46
5. - 2:06
6. Maritime 3:03
7. Weight 10:46
8. From Sinking 8:24
9. Hym 9:14

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