Review Summary: Wow.
As an aspiring music journalist, I've always attempted to steer clear of the "personal" route many take with their pieces of musical analysis (usually reviews, but also articles, interviews, etc.). Though I admire those who can incorporate a distinct intimacy into their writing and still retain a "professional" sheen, I've always found it easier to examine music from the outside, trying to break down what happens in a song or album without including too much of the "me". Too often I have seen an otherwise competent piece of criticism bogged down by too many references to the individual writing the piece; situations and sensibilities that may not apply to the reader are abundant, thus losing them to the writer's own self-focused nature. Although I have considered my attempts heretofore to exclude a sense of personal bias to be relatively successful, there are just some subjects (albums, in this case) that simply can't be written about without a little bias seeping through. I learned this the hard way with my first attempt at reviewing a metal record: I came into Isis' Panopticon
with an already festering inclination against the genre from which it was birthed, and was promptly blown away. Sure, perhaps Isis had the advantage of being the first "post-metal" I had ever listened to, but what I heard was a mature, imaginative record that cemented Isis as one of the most important
bands of the decade in one fell swoop. Fingers shaking with excitement, I typed up a review of the album circa 6th or 7th listen, managing to pull myself together and force out a coherent meditation on how it totally rocked my world, man. The review wasn't just one of the hardest I've ever had to write but also one of the most involving
, requiring the same personal engagement I had made a point of avoiding in my reviewing career.
Yet here I am, back for more, this time possessing a little more familiarity with both Isis and the genre of metal as a whole. Of course, it just attests to the intricacy of Isis' music that this familiarity still doesn't bring me any closer to accurately describing my feelings toward Oceanic
, their second studio album, released two years before Panopticon
. Perhaps this is due to my own lack of competence in the field of music criticism, but it's more likely that this predicament is due to the fact that no one has yet invented a way to translate a jaw dropping onto a floor into the medium of writing. I apologize in advance for what may seem to some as outright hyperbole, but Oceanic
is simply the kind of album that absolutely floors you on first listen and doesn't let up on subsequent ones.
The album tells a loosely narrated story of a man who, living out his life in emotional seclusion, one day finds a woman who "completes" him; his counterpart. However, soon after finding that his own purpose lies within this woman, he also finds that she has been engaged in an incestuous relationship with her own brother. This horrifying realization devastates him to the point where he no longer finds purpose in his own life, and he commits suicide by drowning himself. The story is told in the same sweeping, grandiose and (admittedly) slightly confusing manner that all great "concept albums" (or even rock operas) tell theirs; like The Who's Tommy
or Pink Floyd's The Wall
, you may need to do a little investigating to discover the meaning behind the story and the way in which it is told, but moment in which you finally understand the message brings an unparalleled amount of satisfaction. I start with the concept behind the album not because it's integral to enjoying the album--it's not--but because it gives a good idea of just how complex and sweeping this album really is.
And boy, is it. Oceanic
arguably has a Point A and a Point B, but the places it takes you in the journey in between are places no lesser metal band would dare go in the span of a whole career, much less an album. The "post-metal" epics Isis are so widely known for are alive and well here in the form of songs like opener "The Beginning and the End" and "False Light". However, instead of taking the much-derided "climax" structure that "post-" genres are often associated with, these songs often opt for routes that consist not just of one looming mountain but of many; a whole landscape of rugged terrain. Build-ups and climaxes are here, sure, but they are often utilized in creative and unexpected ways, whether it be interspersing them with softer sections (this is where Isis' praised "ambient" influences come in) or reversing their roles (sometimes, the band will start off with a bang and slowly build from there). And, yes, despite their focus on structure and atmosphere, Isis indeed have the ability to rock out
(albeit in their own, sludgy manner), and they do it more than enough on the album to please any rabid metalhead.
However, along with the innovations made within the constraints of their "metal" songs, there are also tracks that distance themselves from the genre completely--a risk not many contemporary metal bands are willing to take. After a quartet of flawless post-metal songs (culminating with the absolutely illuminating "Carry"), an untitled track suddenly changes the mood, indulging in musique concrète that is effectively frightening. On this track, the band cull from a range of sources--from burbling water (cementing the album's "ocean" theme) to frantic footsteps in the sand to mangled speech that is so frantic it seems to be in a different language--to create music that literally seems out of this world; an alien transmission of some sort. Following this surprisingly anomalous slice of experimental music is "Maritime", a bubbly piece of instrumental rock that feels atypically laidback for an Isis song. Both of these tracks are deviations from the standards set not only by the rest of the album but by Isis' music overall, but they feel like necessary components to the album. Though both tracks, being instrumental, lack the same overlying narrative that the rest of the album possesses, they still bear the same mood and spirit--just two more chapters in a breathtakingly ambitious novel.
The album's absolute best moment, however, comes directly after this small section of experimental divergences. "Weight", the album's lengthiest track, opens with a calming--nay, tranquilizing--combination of soft guitar and ambiance. This calm is soon upset by Aaron Harris' simple yet powerful drumming, which provides the track's backbone as it gradually crescendos. At first the drums distantly resonate as if they're submerged underwater, but over the span of a few minutes, the volume and intensity builds until the drums are pounding out beats that literally feel in-your-face--and the band astonishingly manage to sustain the song for a few minutes solely on these dynamics. Soon, the rest of the band joins in, but the most important addition to the band is not the guitars, nor bass, nor Aaron Turner's growling vocals (which, in fact, are completely absent here). Instead, what makes the biggest difference here is the inclusion of Maria Christopher's vocals, which first make their appearance in "The Beginning and the End" and then again in "Carry". Here, Christopher seems to take on the role of the protagonist's lover, giving the song a touch that is both feminine and mysterious. Her vocals, burrowed deep into the mix, find her meditating on the impulsiveness of human nature ("All in, all in, all in, a day", "A day, it changes everything") and how it affected her male counterpart's decision to commit suicide. Christopher, here as well as on the other songs she is featured in, acts as the vocal foil to frontman Aaron Turner. While Turner's growls are harsh and animalistic, Christopher's brief arias are lilting and fluid, providing an intriguingly fragile element to the "sludge metal" Isis are so well known for. As the song progresses throughout its ten-minute length, each instrument slowly goes full-force, before each element suddenly disappears and leaves the song hanging on a gorgeously strange B Major chord.
Of course, "Weight" just happens to be a track that takes Isis' attention to detail and flair for the epic to the extreme; the rest of the album--even the shorter tracks--has the same kind of interweaving of underlying themes and subtle nuances that can only be elicited after a few close listens. More than anything, the album demonstrates Isis' sense of discovery: underneath every crisp chord, every growl, every bit of convoluted storyline there something waiting to be unearthed. This not only makes Oceanic
a fascinating listen, but also gives it a nearly infinite amount of replay value--something one wouldn't expect after the "novelty" of Isis' unique approach to metal wears off. This is a complex and absorbing masterpiece, one that should be met with wide-open eyes by anyone who also has an open mind. So, go on. Take a dive.