By: Chris Pacifico
Somewhere along the way between the late 70s and early 80s, progressive rock had fizzled out. Drum, guitar and keyboard solos at live shows ended up lasting anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. You'd think that the money spent on a concert ticket was like purchasing a sleeping pill. We'll spare you the names of the legendary bands whose later albums and gigs had rendered them into the realm of sonic dreck. It wasn't until around 1987 that prog rock came back in a new, heavier form. Five lads from Oakland, CA put together a band called Neurosis and began to perk up ears by taking heavy metal and infusing it with dense, tribal sounds. 5100 miles and an ocean away in Umea, a town in northern Sweden known for being a hub of scientific and medical research, Meshuggah was bolting out a brand of shredding riffs, super intricate time signatures and free jazz structures. And there's Tool, and everybody knows about Tool. All of the abovementioned served as giant boulders heaved into a lake and the ripple effect is still being felt into the current generation of loud music.
"There is definitely new and different things happening with metal and heavy rock, and I would like to think that we're helping pushing that envelope" says Isis guitarist Michael Gallagher speaking of the twenty-first century wave of progressive/art metal. For many non-listeners of metal the music is seen as a mindless form of noise pollution, gratuitous, obnoxious and bent on shock value. But in 2007, there's a shift where certain corners of the metal world have been stamped as the thinking man's music. Isis along with Pelican, Boris, Rosetta, Mastodon and a handful of others are reaching wider audiences all the time, capturing fans of groups as diverse as Medeski Martin & Wood, The Bad Plus and Umphrey's McGee.
"I'm glad there are still a lot of metal kids that like us that don't think we've 'sold out' or whatever people seem to say on the street," Gallagher says. "When I walk around at shows that we're playing or look out [into the crowd], I see a fairly wide variety of people and to me that's very exciting."
Isis' music is tailored to a sweet variety of styles and textures, so the diversity in their fan base is fitting. Formed in Boston around 1998, they've remained true purveyors of art metal. Their sounds wow the psyche, intellect and ears with the forthright abrasiveness of metal spliced with a unique, airy hybrid of singer Aaron Turner's half buried vocals and raw, ambient flavors that swing from the perturbing to the elysian. Their guitar riffs and lightly dusted keyboards lilt and lacerate simultaneously, tapping into doom and sludge metal as well as the static mathematics of Krautrock. Outdated schools of thought would simply construe the bulk of Isis' tracks as mere crescendos but take a deeper listen to their instrumental and rhythmic edifices and complex mosaic patterns as esoterically woven Persian rugs emerge.
Their first three EPs led up to their debut full-length Celestial in 2000, which was Isis' most raw, pummeling album, a gritty, crisp dose of intergalactic doom metal. Even though Celestial is well worth checking out, it was 2002's Oceanic that cemented their place in metal. "It's perceived that way by most consumers and journalists," says Gallagher. "I think we hit our stride on that record but I think we've pushed ourselves with each release."
While still heavy, Oceanic was invigorating and gleamed with the extreme illumination of the band's ambition to play something powerful, mysterious and hypnotic. Some say Oceanic was the birth of post-metal while others feel it was a leap for post-rock. "People like to throw tags around, be they journalists or someone going to a show. I do it too," says Gallagher, dismissing any grandiose claims.
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