Isis @ the Phoenix Concert Theatre, June 7th, 2009.
When this show was announced, I thought about going for a few seconds and then passed over it. I used to listen to Isis and Pelican a few years ago, and I still listen Pelican on occasion, but I wasn't interested in seeing Isis at all. Then I went to the Wolves In The Throne Room concert, and I felt like seeing more live music. So I got a ticket, mostly for the Pelican. Isis was headlining though, so I wanted to listen to more of them before the show, and slowly I began to appreciate their music. Celestial appealed to me almost instantly, and then In The Absence of Truth. Panopticon and Oceanic took a little longer, but they hooked me after a couple weeks. Unfortunately, I didn't get to listen to their newest album, Wavering Radiant. I figured that would be the focus of the show, and I wasn't happy about not knowing any of the songs. Still, I was suddenly an Isis fan, and this concert had quickly become something I was looking forward to.
I had been to the Phoenix once before, to see Iron and Wine last November. It's a big place, but can be very intimate if you are close enough to the stage. I was interested to see how the venue could handle post-rock and sludge metal, as opposed to soft whispering and gentle acoustic guitar-strumming.
I left later than I usually would, and the music started a bit earlier than it usually seems to, so I wasn't actually in the room when the first opening band, Tombs, took the stage. I was standing in a crowd of about 30 people, trying to get a look at the merch table when a massive rumble started up from elsewhere in the building. Not wanting to miss anything, I headed into the main hall.
Tombs was actually a pretty good band, and I'm not sure why I wasn't as impressed as I should have been. They were the only band on the bill that I didn't know, and I must have been impatient to see the others. Maybe they were too similar to the other bands, and I was comparing them without realizing it. Something about them failed to capture my attention. They didn't play long anyway; they were done at 9:00 and couldn't have started before 8:30. This was their last stop on the tour, but Pelican and Isis were continuing on. I almost feel bad about not liking them. I should listen to one of their albums. But I was not here because of Tombs. Onwards.
Pelican had a good show. If it wasn't for them I would never have bought this ticket, which is funny considering how I came to prefer Isis over them in the weeks before. The first song left me slightly unimpressed, and I got a little concerned. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for music tonight? But then they got into some older material, and for me, the show really began. They played two songs from their new EP, called Ephemeral, which I'm completely unfamiliar with but now very interested in. Those two songs were definitely the highlight of Pelican's set, which means that the band is back in good form after the lackluster City of Echoes album. Pelican has a very epic, dramatic sound, and when seen live it makes a whole lot more sense than coming out a pair of headphones. After a couple more songs, one of the guys approached the microphone (Pelican is instrumental) and said there would be one more song, to which the audience responded by groaning. The set had not been very long. Little did we know that the "one more song" would be Australasia, the final track off the 2003 album of the same name. A classic Pelican track: ten minutes of good, old-fashioned sludge, alternately meandering and crushing.
After Pelican was done, I spotted someone I had been talking with on last.fm, mostly about this show. I introduced myself, and we tried in vain to talk, but it was too loud and my ears were already ringing a bit, so we turned back to the stage and waited for the headliner to show up.
Isis took a while to take the stage. I tried to relax and enjoy the Boris and Big Business songs they were playing on the sound system, and then finally Isis came out and set up. As with Pelican, I was unfamiliar with a lot of the setlist. I was familiar enough with the rest of the Isis catalogue that I could place most of the songs on Wavering Radiant, just by how they sounded. I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to enjoy them without knowing them beforehand, but that fear was unfounded. If anything, it was the best way to be introduced to the new material. Everything was so much louder and heavier than it could ever be at home. On one hand, the album can't match the live experience, but on the other, I have the intense memory of that music played live, and I'll relive that whenever I play the album myself.
While Pelican was playing, I thought they sounded pretty good, but Isis was much clearer. Pelican's guitars were a bit muddled and sometimes got buried beneath the cymbals, but the sound engineering for Isis' set was dead on. I liked how prominant the drums were, which would have been so much better if they had played more from In The Absence of Truth. That album is full of great tribal drumming beats. The acoustics in the concert hall are also pretty impressive. There is no comparison to the Annex Wreckroom, which should never be used as a concert venue again, in my opinion.
Aside from the music from Wavering Radiant that made up the bulk of the show, Isis played one song each from their older releases, mixed in between the new songs. We worked backwards chronologically, with Dulcinea coming up early on, and In Fiction towards the end. Carry closed the show, and then there was the encore.
Ah, the encore. Although it shouldn't be, the encore is often the best part of the show. It's both a "thank you" to the loyal fans who can stick around and cheer for a few minutes after the show, and a "fuck you" to the unlucky ones who had to leave early to catch the last train. This is the chance for the band to forget about whatever album the tour is promoting and play something classic for the fans. What else could it be for Isis, than the title track off Celestial? I admit to cheating a bit here; I went online earlier and checked out the setlist for another Isis show on this tour, and Celestial was listed as the encore, so I had my fingers crossed on that one. It's my favourite Isis song by far.
So they came back out, waved, and the lights dimmed again, and as they were slinging their guitars back on all I was thinking was "come on, Celestial, Celestial, Celestial.." Then deep red lights flared up through the thinning clouds of pot smoke and the song began. God, it was heavy. The transition from silence to that gargantuan rhythm was like poking your head out of a stormy ocean and turning to see an enormous wave about to pummel you to the seabed. Devastating. Dominating. For the entire show, there had been a little swaying, a little headbanging, and even some moshing (which was a bit out of place), but now almost everyone was reacting to the music, whole bodies nearly bending in half on each monumental chord. A couple of times, I forgot where I was, and I may have gone overboard on the headbanging, as I noticed I had trouble keeping my balance later, even while standing straight. Everything seemed to be swaying to the music. When frontman Aaron Turner roared out wordless bellows, the crowd echoed and amplified them beyond the power of the microphone. It was as if he had become twenty feet tall. The song lasted around ten minutes, mixing into the other version of Celestial on SGNL>05. I don't remember much more of it, but it was one of the better moments of my life.
After the show, I stumbled outside and tried to walk to the subway station in a straight line, which I mostly accomplished. After that sonic assault, I felt like I should count myself lucky to be alive, like I had survived a horrific, violent ordeal, but then why was I smiling?