Review Summary: "In the Absence of Truth" is a beautiful collage of story and sound. Anyone who disregards metal as immature and thoughtless needs to hear this.
There are a few reasons I never got into heavy metal. Chief among them is the prevailing notion that metal comes from a counterculture movement of angry young men and misunderstood social outcasts. Mom and dad say metal is for druggies and dropouts who wear fake leather and want to stick it to the man – avoid it at all costs because Beethoven has so much more to say about your life and where you’re going…right, whatever. Honestly, I was content to ignore it like the rest of the crowd that holds up a cross to metal like it’s a B-movie vampire until I heard this album. I studied music in college, and I find it comforting to do my homework on an album before listening – what’s the artist trying to do? What’s the context? Are the lyrics personal or fantasy? So when I started digging around for the concept behind In the Absence of Truth
, I stumbled across a whole world of ideas. Man of La Mancha
, Hassan-I Sabbah, perception of reality, House of Leaves
, …and this is metal? It highlighted for me the tragedy in people’s reaction to anything that has to do with “heavy metal.”
Nothing is real. Everything is permitted.
The sound of Absence
, much like its story, is a hard one to pin down. It’s complex, tortuous, at times simple and harmonious, but always elusive. I actually got goosebumps during “Dulcinea,” the third track, which represents the second of three peaks in the album. I say “peaks” because there are a number of threads that run throughout Absence
, and one of the most prominent is a 3-on-2 beat drumming motif that appears in three key spots. Since the album is largely based around the travails of Don Quixote and his eternal search for Dulcinea – the woman of his dreams, in whom he saw “beauty overflowing through the tattered clothes” – it seems fitting to equate this galloping motif to our hero riding triumphantly onward. The first instance is, fittingly, at the album’s very beginning: “Wrists of Kings” immediately sets an epic historical stage for the album to follow (“Now our blood travels though the veins of our history…”). Isis uses heavily delayed guitar as the flesh of its sound, with simple and effective percussion as the backbone. Clean singing dominates the first half of the album, often tastefully detuned in deference to the dense layers of instrumentation; in other places, the climax of each song brings frontman Aaron Turner’s death growls to the fore.
He is not mad; his thought is clearer than the saner man.
Even with the unclean singing, there is nothing aggressive or threatening about Isis’ sound here. The voices are like characters in a story, where some speak in mellifluous tones and others in ominous rasps. On “Dulcinea,” these harsher vocals promptly give way to a beautiful guitar build, and back comes the galloping drum motif as our hero finds his courage anew. Like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” and Jaws
’ stomach-churning strings, Quixote’s riding theme arrives just in time to heighten the emotional impact of the moment. The middle third of Abesence
returns to a mid-tempo concoction of legato guitar lines and gentle synthesizer swells, an ebb and flow of ideas that continues for three songs and represents perhaps the least engaging section of the album. And yet even the lowest-common-denominator moments are worthwhile as they build inexorably towards “Holy Tears,” a song that takes all that smoldering energy and releases it at the perfect moment following a steady climb of sparkling guitar tones and chanted vocals. Isis plays their hand masterfully on the last three tracks, as “Holy Tears” leads into a haunting eight-minute instrumental, “Firdous E Bareen.”
It was you who brought me here; yours, whose face greeted me, in the garden of light.
As layers of sound swirl and churn, hazy keyboards drift in and out of the mist, the whole piece becomes hypnotic, and another key concept of Absence
becomes clear: perception of reality and truth. Man of La Mancha
dwells on this theme, and so in turn does Isis. What is reality, and does the difference between it what we perceive really matter? Songs such as “Over Root and Thorn” are cyclical in nature, while “1000 Shards” and “Not In Rivers, But In Drops” are full of subversions and false endings, lending the album a labyrinth-like quality. By the time “Garden of Light” arrives, the overarching story has taken detours in every imaginable direction, Quixote has seen his love and lost her again, and hope has begun to fade. But just as things are looking their bleakest, our Dulcinea arrives to pull us back from the brink. The drums kick back into gear, those thunderous guitars begin to shimmer, and the mist clears as In the Absence of Truth
soars to its triumphant finish. There aren’t really words to describe the feeling that Isis is able to conjure as all the pieces finally come together, and anyone who is intimidated by distorted guitars and unclean singing will likely have no idea the vast world that they are overlooking. Transcendent might be the best way to describe it, but frankly, mom and dad will probably look at you cross-eyed and ask what Ralph Waldo Emerson has to do with that devil-music on your stereo. But you…you will see its form transformed, from ash to golden throne.