Review Summary: Panopticon is a brilliant listen with no wasted moments, showing what metal is truly capable of.
Prejudice. It's something all of us have. As a product of human error, all of us sometimes unfairly judge based off stereotypes and predetermined opinions, musical or not. I have always had a prominent discrimination against something many people love. That something is metal music. My opinion on metal music was harsh and unfair, quickly dismissing it as shallow and insignificant. To me, metal always consisted of repeated chugging chords and strange animal noises replacing actual singing, with cheesy and soft sections interspersed. I thought of metal as a self-indulgent form of music, that served only to please the ostentatious and overblown bands and their ridiculously loyal fans. It was a brutal criticism of a genre I didn't know well at all, and it served only to damage my listening experience. The worst part was, I believed myself for the longest time. That is, until I listened to Isis' masterpiece Panopticon
. Rarely can a single album give you a completely different outlook on an entire genre, but the album did it, and if I have one regret about it, it's not listening to it sooner.
What makes Panopticon
differ from other metal albums is that it's simply a way in
for anybody who doesn't warm to metal easily. It effortlessly mixes elements of indie rock, sludge metal, post-rock, progressive, and even ambient into its own unique hybridization of genres. However, it's still recognizable as metal (and some damn good metal at that): its rich and heavy chords and growling vocals are staples of the genre done one better, and its unconventional song structure recalls progressive metal bands such as Opeth or even Mastodon. However, Isis remember something so many metal bands seem to forget: to make their music beautiful
. When not pounding out chords so rich they seem tangible, the band are creating softly meandering interludes that are nothing short of gorgeous (if in a subtly menacing way).
In addition to improving on already-established standards of metal, Isis constantly find new ways to innovate and expand the genre's depths. The album is "progressive" in every sense of the word: each song approaches or blows past the seven-minute mark, but no song ever bores the listener. Isis also constantly show restraint on the album; instead of taking the "easy way out" and constantly letting the songs devolve into sludgy jam sessions, the band choose to take longer musical paths and let the songs build themselves to beautiful apexes. The band constantly discard conventional structure in favor of an infinitely more interesting way of building their songs: sometimes subtly disquieting passages will suddenly give way to triumphantly blasting guitar chords, or the band will introduce an unexpected riff, or even give ad-lib nods to other genres. Whatever it is they end up doing, the band always excite and are never predictable, giving the album an impulsive edge.
While they show brilliance in the songwriting category, the band's members also make it known that they sure as hell know what they're doing with their instruments. Frontman Aaron Turner is the best of both worlds: his singing has a gruff yet affecting edge, while his growling never feels forced or laughably indulgent, like so many others do. His voice fits perfectly with the astoundingly rich chords played on the guitars, and, both his voice and the guitars acting as instruments, the pair is one you won't likely see bettered in almost any metal band. Isis excel in other instrumental fields as well: the drumming is consistently strong, while the atmospheric tones that complement the quieter sections are always placed to near-perfection.
is not an album that can be taken apart track-by-track. While each track makes for a fascinating individual listen, the album is best taken as a whole. The length of the album's songs (the album spans 7 songs and 60 minutes) may seem a little daunting for the uninitiated, but the album is easily welcoming for anyone willing to give it their undivided attention. The album is a seductive experience, trading in structure and melody for overall sound and tone. It may not be the most accessible metal album on the market, but it should have any listener quickly scrambling for their other albums. I know I will.