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Isis - Panopticon

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Artist: Isis

Album: Panopticon

Label: Ipecac

Review date: Nov. 10, 2004

Isis don't defy categorization, but they do sidestep it. While they're a little more nuanced than your average hardcore band and a little more mysterious than your average metal band, they're also just too heavy to be much of anything else. Fortunately, on an album as good as Panopticon, composed of seven towering, epic songs that build progress and maturity off the best elements of their past work, it hardly matters.

Panopticon is still very much an Isis record, which is to say atmospheric, moody, technically precise and smolderingly loud, but here a heightened sense of musicality works wonders. Vocalist Aaron Turner growls and bellows as he did throughout records like 2002's Oceanic and its predecessors, but increasingly rarely; more often he actually sings, and even more often he keeps quiet, letting the music speak for itself.

Which it does amply: the three-guitar assault is likewise as fearsome as ever, yet Panopticon's songs are more melodic and structured, lending all the sound and fury an enchantingly expressive undertone. The dull wood-on-skin thud of the drums, coupled with the methodical rumble of the bass, underlay the swirl and churn of the guitars as they curl upward in slow spirals. Isis rein in their chaos skillfully, applying just the right punch of volume at just the right moment, swelling and fading and swelling again to explosion with formidable discipline.

The album is also possessed of a greater patience than ever before. Whereas eight-minute-plus songs are nothing new for the band, the strongest tracks, like "So Did We" and "In Fiction," are more focused on building toward a central climax, underscoring their power by foreshadowing it more often than flexing it. This sense of drama in turn lends itself beautifully to the band's studied conceptual bent: not only can you still hear the depths of the watery themes behind Oceanic and the Red Sea EP, but now a palpable sense of paranoia joins them in the dark, brooding swells that line the songs' quieter moments. Even as insufferable as an album based on Foucault's idea of the panopticon (a storied prison with lofty dystopian implications vis-à-vis the seeing/being seen paradigm, etc.) would almost have to be, the erudition gets left off the page. Isis are sophisticated, but they play with the conviction necessary to trim away the excess pretentiousness.

But the clincher is the vocals. Turner uses them not to convey the lyrics, which are all but incomprehensible anyway, nor to fulfill that de facto part of the hardcore formula, but as a honest-to-god instrument. His singing voice is a raspy and by all accounts ugly one, but it blends perfectly with the tuneful abrasion of everything under it. And while he has sung before, like on Oceanic's closer "Hym," and while he does growl his fair share here, his voice is never the overarching focus of the song, just another instrument, and one used sparingly at that. Each song on Panopticon is at least 75 percent vocal-free anyway; its one full instrumental track, "Altered Course," stands out only by virtue of how brightly melodic it is, not by the absence of lyrics.

By cultivating their considerable instrumental prowess and diminishing the hardcore snarl commonplace in their line of work, Isis have surpassed in finesse and accessibility (the good kind) their already highly-lauded past efforts, and just totally gotten it right. Familiarity with post-hardcore or avant-metal or Foucault-rock is, happily, not a prerequisite for being captivated by Panopticon, nor is caring enough about them to know where to file Isis. Imagination and volume will do.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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In the Absence of Truth

Wavering Radiant

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