Let’s have some heavy tonight.
In fact I don’t own anything else as heavy as ISIS Oceanic*, it’s one of those bad work days. I took some persuading from my friend Steve to get into ISIS a couple of years ago, you see I love a lot of post-rock especially Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emporer, I like the liberation it gives from tight, conventional song structures and standard instrumentation, just the whole opportunity for expansiveness it gives really creative minds. However ISIS do all that with metal which is fine, I think we’re all generally agreed here** that metal is a good thing; what made it a little harder for me is the fact that vocalist/guitarist/creative powerhouse Aaron Turner doesn’t sing conventionally, his vocals are all in a more, umm, death metally grunty vein – you’ll have to bear with me here I’m not on home turf. I found that very off-putting, I’ve always been able to cope with shrillness, screams and over the top operatics, but that whole straining sound? try it out below.
However, once you immerse yourself in Oceanic, letting the breakers of sound roll over you and let go, stop struggling as it were it makes perfect sense. One night I just simply got it, a bit like looking at one of those optical illusion hologram thingys – at a certain point you have to just relax your eyes and roll them sideways and Bing! there’s your 3D picture of a hedge warping into perfect clarity. Oceanic and ISIS in general was a similar experience for me, Bing! there’s your 3D picture of a despairing loner drowning himself possibly after learning of the incestuous rape of his girlfriend^. How else could you convey this unfathomable tidal dark, this extremity of feeling, how could the voice mirror the heaviness of the instrumentation at these times? Just relax into thinking of the voice here as another instrument, another texture, rather than as a means of conveying lyrics and you’re there. Maybe it is/was/ will be easier for you, but I had to adjust.
It was worth the effort.
A lot of reviewers term ISIS ‘ambient metal’ and I can understand that but they’re so much more than that. Oceanic is a suitably vast LP, or double LP if you want to be picky about it, without wishing to sound simplistic here, I don’t think I have ever heard an LP that’s this big before. There are a lot of atmospheric and ambient touches throughout, alongside some truly titanic heaviness, without, I think, a guitar solo in sight; there are none of the cosy metal conventions we mock but love at play here. There is a lot of light and shade here, hell there’s even a jaunty bit on ‘Carry’! Heaviest and possibly the most conventional track is the finale, ‘Hym’.
Oceanic doesn’t work in fragments, only as a whole, which makes writing about it darned difficult. The concept is, as I mentioned deliberately vague, but all those ideas of submersion, sacrifice and hurt are there, along with shallow calms and gentle eddies. This is a long album and all the better for it, all these fluctuations and currents of feeling need room to evolve, either to whip up into a perfect guitar storm, or to pass on by, leaving you braced for the tempest that never came.
If I had to hang my hat on a moment of excellence, I’d plump for all 10:46 of ‘Weight’, which runs the gamut of all the moods and experiences here. What I love so much about this particular track is simply the way it builds and progresses from a gentle ripple into a self-sustaining squall, before ending rather like Beatles ‘Day In The Life’ (seriously). It’s monolithic in size and scope, but light at the same time – no mean feat. The female vocals also really light up this track giving it extra substance and nuance; is her calling salvation? or is she just a siren?^^ I may betray my non-musoness here, but another really interesting thing about ‘Weight’ is that Aaron Harris’ drums are just not where you’d expect to find them in the mix, they are foregrounded and quite high in the mix (if that makes any sense) giving the song a really different sound.
I really don’t know where ISIS sprang from, culturally not geographically, but I am so glad they did, you hear echoes of their sound throughout the more out-there strands of metal and in the work of the likes of Cult Of Luna. They are yet another band I only cottoned on to after they split; see also Pixies and System of a Down. The playing is fantastic by all concerned too. What I also like a lot here is that Oceanic is a very nicely put together object, on Ipecac Recordings the label co-owned by Mike Patton. Which is a relief as I paid quite a lot of money for this one night when I came home from a night out and broke my self-imposed and really rather sensible, ‘Don’t drink and eBay’ commandment. The cover and inners are all suitably moody and watery and the poetry inside suitably disquieting.
Everything ties in here! The imagery, the mood, the vastness and dynamics of the sound. It all goes to make a perfectly conceived and realized whole. In these days of iTunes and shuffling, Oceanic is a towering vindication of the album as art form and probably one of the very best I own.
I really wouldn’t have been ready for Oceanic when it came out in 2002, but I am so ready for it again right now!
*with possible exception of ISIS Panopticon, maybe.
**apart from the odd maverick Aussie.
^it’s not crystal clear, artfully obscured by the repetitive poetry in the inner sleeve, which only hints at the truths here.
^^in the Greek sense, I wasn’t comparing her to a passing ambulance.