Isis, Oceanic (Ipecac, 2002)
Aaron Turner – Vocals/Guitars
Michael Gallagher – Guitars
Jeff Caxide – Bass
Aaron Harris – Drums
Bryant Clifford Meyer – Electronics/Guitars/Vocals
Produced by Matt Bayles and Isis
Around three years ago, I reached a crossroads with metal. At the time, I was listening to Anaal Nathrakh, Vital Remains’ Dechristianize, and Guttural Secrete, and each of the three were the heaviest of their respective niche, in my opinion. But they were heavy to a degree where I genuinely couldn’t see music getting any heavier: where do you go when you’re already firing on all cylinders, and even in doing that, you’re firing more than most of your contemporaries? To be honest, with all three bands, a notch “heavier” would leave them as noise (in fact, listen to Anaal Nathrakh’s “Castigation and Betrayal” off of 2007’s otherwise un-noteworthy Hell is Empty and the Devils Are Here for proof), perhaps even so heavy they couldn’t support themselves. So it was from here that I went outward to see what bands could do with heaviness that didn’t involve trying to out-brutal or out-necro one another. It was here where I discovered drone doom, post-metal, and the like: bands that tested patience not by being loud and fast, but slow, bordering on meandering (and often crossing that border in the case of many lesser bands), creating soundscapes and spaces in lieu of obliterating them, focusing on building mood but not emotion. It was here I stumbled upon Isis, and specifically their perfect, still-career best album, Oceanic.
Isis’ quasi-mainstreaming of the much maligned “post-metal” (or at least its moniker) genre didn’t happen overnight, or even over the course of one album. While the band’s early releases rarely broke from worshipping at the altar of Neurosis and Godflesh, their debut full length, Celestial, was where the band started seeing the potential in the wide spaces between monolithic sludge riffs. The band fully realized that potential on Oceanic, an album of porcelain delicacy and harsh crescendos, at once majestic and mammoth. Supposedly a concept album about love, incest, rape, and suicide, it manages to never goes over the top, or even approach it. Oceanic’s victories are in subtlety and patience. But every call for patience is rewarded, with the band explosively reentering the picture after each jaunt off the map: see the crushing riffery of “Carry” and “From Sinking” and the epic closer “Hym” for proof. Like the element and object the album’s title evokes, the band skillfully ebbs and flows throughout the course of Oceanic.
But whereas Isis’ long jaunts into spindly post-rock guitar fog often get dismissed as boring and pointless, Oceanic makes every one count, creating bottomlessly lush textures to juxtapose their walls of sludgy guitar. And in a decade where the juxtaposition of beauty and harshness in metal meant a tone-deaf prick named Jared employing good cop/ bad cop vocals for his shitty metalcore band, Isis’ skillful and perfect use of it reinstated hope – arguably briefly and in vain – for the metal underground. Nowhere in Isis’ catalog before or since has this been more adeptly illustrated than on Oceanic, an album that takes residence beyond the limits reached by bands preoccupied with “heavy.” Grind and brutal death are content in sanding your face off, and black metal sees fit to violently burrow under your skin via harsh sonics and abrasive production; Isis, their forefathers, and disciples look to challenge your patience and perception of metal via sashaying on the line between beauty and brutality. While Guttural Secrete can reach 11, Isis know you have to twist the dial below it in order to make 11 matter. Oceanic is an album, not an endurance test.