It was years ago, when I only listened to single songs at a time, that I happened across the sludge/hardcore/post-rock band Isis. I had a hard time forming an opinion on the band. Most of my songs were from their later albums like Panopticon and Oceanic, though I had a couple from Red Sea and Celestial as well. Not yet thinking in an album-centric way, I eventually decided the band was not for me. At that time, my favourite Isis song was called Swarm Reigns, and was the fourth song on Celestial.
When I began listening to full albums almost exclusively, I gave Isis a proper chance. I figured they were probably a group that makes the effort of building a single cohesive work with each album, and to appreciate their music I would need to hear it like that. Unfortunately, the albums I gave that proper chance to were the same ones that disappointed me years before, and although my tastes had changed a lot since then, I was still left unsatisfied. Very recently, I revisited Isis yet again, trying to get into the mood for an upcoming Pelican/Isis concert, and realized that none of this back-and-forth would have been necessary had I picked out Celestial to listen to from the beginning.
As it turns out, I had been looking for an album like Celestial for a long time, but never knew how close I was to finding it. When I first looked at the track list, I hadn't heard it yet, but I saw two things that got me interested.
1. SGNL>01 (0:55)
2. Celestial (The Tower) (9:42)
3. Glisten (6:35)
4. Swarm Reigns (Down) (6:02)
5. SGNL>02 (0:51)
6. Deconstructing Towers (7:30)
7. SGNL>03 (0:35)
8. Collapse and Crush (5:55)
9. C.F.T. (New Circuitry and Continued Evolution) (5:43)
10. Gentle Time (7:02)
11. SGNL>04 (End Transmission) (1:07)
The first was the presence of Swarm Reigns. My immediate thought was that if the whole album sounds like that one song, I'd be happy, and I wasn't far off the mark on that one. The second thing was the common theme of the titles, especially the four little "SGNL" tracks. Always a sucker for concept albums, I donned the headphones and turned up the volume.
It's hard to articulate exactly what the concept behind Celestial is, but signals, codes, and messages are a central theme. The rest is open to the interpretation of the listener. The SGNL tracks are not songs, but collections of sound effects for establishing mood, including a repeating sonar blip, thick tape hiss, and an ominous clicking sound that could be nervous fingers on a keyboard or the slavering mandibles of an insectoid alien invader. No story is explicitly spelled out, but there is certainly a framework to build on, if imaginative listeners are so inclined.
After SGNL>01, the music really starts in, with a pounding rhythm as infectious as a house beat but as heavy and headbang-worthy as Cannibal Corpse. The first song is the longest, and gives a good impression of what the album sounds like. Just about every song on the album takes a break for some slow, gentle, moody parts. Songs like Deconstructing Towers lean heavily on earsplitting feedback, introducing violence to an already brutal soundscape. Electronic sounds are also used in the main songs as well as the SGNL interludes, although sparingly enough that they don't distract from the rest of the music. The vocals are still completely harsh at this point in Isis' music; not until the next album does Aaron Turner begin experimenting with actual singing. Here, his voice is a low, rough shout, almost as raspy and grating as the distortion on the guitars. It's buried beneath the rest of the noise though, meaning that if the vocals don't appeal, they can be easily ignored.
There are hints scattered throughout Celestial of the band that Isis was to become afterwards. Sludge metal is a very restrictive term, and it doesn't take much experimentation before the music no longer fits under that umbrella. Songs are built with a series of five or six main riffs or progressions that blend into each other, always dwelling in the ultra-low end of the guitar. The strings are down-tuned to afford greater range without moving up from that low area. The quiet interludes are there to break up monotony, but also to put the listener on edge, anticipating the return of the crushing weight that the song started with. Over the years, Isis shifted focus over to these quiet parts, making them longer and more intricate, and modern Isis became the inverse of early Isis.
Celestial has a sequel release: an EP called SGNL>05. It's quite simply a continuation of the themes and mood that Celestial established, and at the very least is as good as Celestial. It is highly recommended to listen to both albums together, back-to-back, to get the full experience. In fact, the second half of Celestial is a bit weak compared to the opening attacks of the title track and Swarm Reigns, and SGNL>05 actually provides a better ending if heard directly afterwards.
Celestial - Isis - 2000 - Escape Artist