IN THE ABSENCE OF ISIS
It’s not really a surprise that Isis broke up. Their last Decibel cover story had the members alluding to at least a hiatus, and if you heard the band’s last two albums, something wasn’t the same. Even Cosmo Lee was taking (imaginary) bets on it. But that didn’t make hearing Isis’ decision to call it a day any easier: despite Wavering Radiant not being on par with the band’s first three full lengths, it still hinted at what could be a new beginning, with a renewed sense of collaboration evident in the album’s songs. Of course, it wouldn’t suit the band to go out with a whimper in lieu of a relative bang, and perhaps that album’s team spirit best suits their mental state at the nadir of their journey: five guys who were alright with eachother, but had just run out of stuff to say. The instinct to want a band to flog its potential to its bones comes with being a fan, but almost any Isis enthusiast knew that the they wouldn’t go out like that. Still, there’s something kind of sad seeing them go, in that in the increasingly predictable metal world, the band, even when not at their best (see: In the Absence of Truth) still promised something different. The rigid rulebook of metal was something they didn’t want to play by, which won them their fair share of slavish fanboys (see: Sammy O’Hagar) and confused and irritated detractors. You could say “we need them now more than ever” when any important band calls it a day, but it feels a little more apt with Isis.
Personally, they hit me pretty hard when I’d sort of reached a crossroads with metal: heavy’s fine, but when everything’s extreme, where does one go from there? The rambling structure of Celestial‘s title track felt like an answer: one ignores the instinct to bludgeon their audience and instead make them wait to hear what you’re trying to say. Of course, even casual fans of the band can tell you that it only got better from there: Oceanic is just about perfect, Panopticon its less accessible yet equally rewarding sibling, In the Absence of Truth‘s “Dulcinea” made the confoundingly muddy songs around it almost worthwhile, and Wavering Radiant… well, we’ve been over that. There was something exciting about the band’s refusal to conform to what one considers heavy, especially when deathcore and metalcore seemingly write songs by pouring them into a mold. But despite scholarly influences (Michael Foucault, Jeremy Bentham, Oceanic’s semi-Greek and Romantic “storyline”) the band never flaunted its intelligence nor did they condescend to their listeners; being a metalhead who reads can sometimes lead to cringe-worthy moments where bands shove their Cliff’s Notes knowledge of Blake, Shelley, HP Lovecraft and the like down your throat. “Thinking Man’s Metal” was a bullshit tag, but while the band was viscerally enjoyable, there was always the sense that there were some smart dudes at its core.
Of course, the band’s intelligence wasn’t confined to its lyrical and conceptual content: the music itself FELT smart, but in a manner more subtle than metal had been used to. The long buildups, the lengthy codas, the huge dynamics: all of them felt like they were serving a broader purpose. But Isis never asked you to follow along; they expected you to keep up. And no, they weren’t the first band to nail slow-burning songs that borrowed from minimalism and post-rock (obviously no one can beat their forefathers in Neurosis and Godflesh at that game, though they came close). But there was still something special about it, and now, it’s over.
Well, not OVER over: the band are preparing a farewell EP as well as finishing off their tour — unintentionally wrapping up in Montreal, the city where they played their first show — not to mention compiling live material for future posthumous releases. But the age of fresh Isis music is wrapping up, which is a bummer. The band’s statement claims “Our words can never fully express what we feel, but we hope that our music and the efforts made to bring it into being can serve as a more proper expression of gratitude for this life and for everyone in it. Thank you.” No, thank YOU, gentlemen. Though it lead to a throng of guys insisting, “I don’t even LIKE metal, but I like Isis.”, it also showed that there was more to the genre than mere brutality. While many thrived in the extreme on one end, Isis helped show that there’s an extreme on the other, too, and that it held a world of possibility. You’ll be sorely missed.