Those who have followed Isis over the years know that it’s never been easy listening.
Their early release Celestial revelled in its abrasive, industrial sounds, harking back to 90’s monsters Godflesh. The album pummelled you into submission with massive and repetitive riffs.
The artistry of the band has grown in each subsequent release: the fatalistic gloom of Oceanic, the paranoia of Panopticon, and the redemptory triumph of 2006’s In The Absence Of Truth.
Isis’s quest for technical excellence, melodic structures and an increasing preference for singing over rasping screams means that each release has been progressively easier on the ear. However, while they have refined their sound, their increasing ability to create entrancing, epic songscapes has meant that each album has become an increasingly challenging listen.
The heavier parts are still there, but they are more willing to linger on the quieter parts in between. Their pieces play out in several movements over the course of a song, taking the listener through a series of peaks and lulls.
Hand of the Host is a great example of this. An orchestral opening and softly sung first verse is soon shaken up by an old-school crushing chorus, before an expansive middle section gradually rebuilds into an overwhelming crescendo. The song winds down over the last minute or two, giving way to the 2-minute electronic title track at the centre of the album.
Again and again the band constructs and deconstructs monumental songs, playing out over eight, nine or ten minutes each, culminating in the fitting finale that is Threshold of Transformation.
This macro-level artistry is matched by the band’s musicianship, particularly their ability to layer intricately crafted melodies with the string-like complement of the synth. These sections weave together, just as in a beautiful carpet or tapestry, to create the large scale vision.
It’s difficult to write a review of an Isis album without drifting off into spiritual or cosmological metaphors. Hopefully it’s enough to say that, perhaps more than any other band, they approach their music as an art form; with utmost earnestness, reverence, imagination and skill.
What makes this band great is their willingness to push the boundaries of self-importance. After all, if a work of art is not aiming to be important then what is the point of it?
It’s still not easy listening, but it’s essential.