In the Absence of Truth
t’s not Isis’ fault that they sound unoriginal these days. All you have to do is pick up a copy of Decibel, open it to any page, and you’ll find someone counting the group as an influence. The LA-via-Boston band took its own cues when starting out, aping Neurosis and Godflesh by throwing down huge, sludgy riffs that reeked of basement shows, beards, and knit caps. Although the band almost never plays its older material now, 1998's Mosquito Control and the following year's The Red Sea are must-hear, mammoth works. On Celestial and the SGNL>05 EP, the band's sound expanded to include electronics and more adventurous song structures.
It was 2002's Oceanic that marked Isis’ arrival, however. On that album, Isis established its present sound—long, patient songs that rise from melodic clean tones to crashing climaxes with swinging, organic rhythms. Panopticon continued this sound, as frontman Aaron Turner's vocals shifted further from his earlier howl to matter-of-fact clean singing. "In Fiction" was that album's masterpiece, gradually building and building to a shuddering, orgasmic peak. Isis had tapped into a universal feeling—inhabiting the same psychedelic space as, say, U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky" and Massive Attack's "Angel."
On In the Absence of Truth, Isis stays the course it set with Oceanic and Panopticon. The songs are still long, the rhythms are still organic, and in general Isis still sounds like Isis. The few changes here are slight—Aaron Harris' drumming is more dynamic, Turner's vocals are mostly clean, and the songs are quieter and more relaxed than ever. Few bands do clean tones like Isis: "Not in Rivers, but in Drops" has some of the deepest clean tones this side of The Cure's Disintegration, while album closer "Garden of Light" weaves multiple clean tones, strumming, jangly picking, and single-note lines into a fitting conclusion.
The songs still lead to climaxes, but they're the album's least interesting moments. Isis has done the small-to-big thing so much that this aspect of their sound feels predictable. To the band's credit, it's learned to back off quickly, infusing songs with more peaks and valleys. The band has also thrown a few more notes into its scales; for all its hype as an avant-garde, thinking-man's ensemble, Isis has always been harmonically conservative, sticking to rock music's traditional flatted thirds and sevenths. "Wrists of Kings" bucks this trend with eerie tritones and a flatted second that Turner carefully emphasizes in his vocal lines.
Isis albums have usually revolved around central themes; Oceanic was all about water, while Panopticon dealt with issues of surveillance. While the band has said In the Absence of Truth has a theme, it hasn’t bothered to make it clear what it is. In the absence of printed lyrics, it’s a frustrating move—while Turner's vocals are cleaner than ever, they're still low enough in the mix to render them hard to understand. On some level, though, this is gratifying; despite its ever-rising profile, it’s clear that Isis is still being Isis.