Isis is a sludge/post-rock band from Boston that was formed in 1997. They are frequently compared to Neurosis, not only because of the strong similarities of their music but also because of the way the bands operate. Both groups have their own labels for releasing music: Neurot Recordings and Hydra Head Records, respectively (although Hydra Head actually predates Isis by four years).
Aaron Turner (guitar, vocals)
Jeff Caxide (bass)
Mike Gallagher (guitar)
Aaron Harris (drums)
Cliff Meyer (electronics)
Chris Mereschuk (electronics, 1997-98)
Jay Randall (electronics, 1999-2000)
Over the years, Isis has changed quite a bit in terms of their music. Atlanta metal band Mastodon followed much the same path. They started with pure sludge, (Celestial for Isis, Remission for Mastodon) but eventually scraped the rough edges off a lot of the vocals and began exploring the lighter, more melodic sides of metal. Isis' early work is very heavy. Frontman Aaron Turner has a hoarse, raspy growl that fits into the bass-thick riffing perfectly, like cog teeth. Most of the guitar work was steady, down-tuned palm-muting, giving that throaty chugging-train sound. As time went by, Isis began experimenting with clean guitars and softer passages that became more and more common. Typical Isis songs play with quick transitions, from calm to frenzied, so their music was never a relentless onslaught. Every storm had its eye. In their later work, the focus begins to shift towards the eyes and away from the storms.
There are a number of recurring images or concepts in Isis' body of work. The first and most obvious of these is the ocean, or water in general. It's on the album art in the name of the Oceanic album, and many titles reference water in some way: "Red Sea," "Maritime," "From Sinking," "Holy Tears," "Not in Rivers But In Drops." Scattered throughout Celestial are sounds of sonar blips, though on that album a different theme is more evident: insects. The album cover is adorned with two very faint insect shapes, and the track "Swarm Reigns" brings locusts to mind. It's fairly overt on the early EP Mosquito Control, with track names like "Life Under The Swatter" and "Relocation Swarm". Mosquitos and water are linked, and at the risk of reading too much into it, one can see the dichotomy of life-sucking parasites dwelling in life-giving liquid.
The band has managed to retain an "Isis" sound throughout its existence, but that doesn't mean there is any clear consensus on what their best album is. Their discography is strong, and varied. I stand by Celestial, their first full-length album, and SGNL>05, the EP sequel. For me, Isis is at its best when it is at its heaviest, and despite Celestial's ferocity, it manages to be eerie and unsettling. Fans of fellow Hydra Head band Pelican usually tend to gravitate towards Panopticon, which offers long build-ups and rewarding climaxes, like a proper post-rock album. A lot of the tracks feature clean guitar for long stretches, and the vocals are relatively easy on the ears as well ("relatively" being the key word; even when not growling, Turner's voice is pretty rough). The emotions presented are much more complex than the raw power of Mosquito Control or Celestial. Oceanic is almost like an earlier version of Panopticon, but darker, and more menacing. Their more recent albums, In The Absence of Truth and Wavering Radiant actually sound heavier than the two before them, but that doesn't seem to signify a return to the old Isis. Wavering Radiant is more progressive metal than anything, and sacrifices the slow, introspective musing of Oceanic for prominent keyboards and overactive guitars that are unfortunately buried in the mix. Still, as a prog metal album, it's as good as the latest offering by Opeth or Mastodon; it just isn't the Isis it used to be.
In The Absence of Truth (2006)
Wavering Radiant (2009)
Mosquito Control (1998)
The Red Sea (1999)
There are also five live albums, entitled simply "Live," as well as a four-volume Oceanic remix series.
Isis has released albums on labels such as Neurot Recordings, Hydra Head, Second Nature, Ipecac, and Escape Artist, among others.
On May 18, 2010, the band announced via blog post that Isis would go no further. With thirteen years of playing together and not a single bad release, they have chosen to vanish from the post-metal scene at their prime. I'm thankful to have been able to see them play. One final tour is in progress (accompanied by bands like Melvins, Tombs, and Cave In), and will end in late June in Montreal.