Isis
Oceanic
Ipecac
2002
A-

it is time to answer the question: what is “heavy”?


This question could be considered offensively frustrating -- a nebulous semantic hedge-maze, a self-important attempt to build borders around a subjective term, a pointless music store debate -- but it is really very simple. Truly heavy music is the perfect combination of aggression -- battering rhythms, cauterizing guitars, throttled vocal chords -- and density -- a wall of noise that is both pregnant with ideas and sonically impenetrable. Without this balance, heaviness cannot exist. Too much A and not enough B gives you Slayer. Slayer is not heavy. They are fast. Too much B and not enough A and you have Orthrelm, who are too driven by ideas and whose music is far too bizarre to be considered heavy.


ISIS remains the one-word answer for the question posed above, and even though Oceanic is less violent than the band’s 2000 epic Celestial, their sonic barrage has kept pace with their rapidly advancing ideas. Whereas Celestial’s heaviness was that of moon, of glacier, of bone, of collapse, Oceanic is the heaviness of tide, of sand, of womb, of love.


The album’s sound is somewhat of a shock, and to some it may be as jarring as any mid-song shift the band has ever executed. Whereas previous ISIS releases emphasized the band’s subterranean rumble, much of Oceanic is exposed to the air; the sludge quotient is significantly lower, rendering the album’s sound almost crisp. Such a transformation would only be cause for alarm if the lost quotient was left un-replaced, but Oceanic’s songs remain devastating. The shaved low-end provides Aaron Turner’s blistered howl its first opportunity to climb out from underneath the tar and roar louder than ever at the top of the mix.


The album’s production may prove to be a distraction, but ISIS’ augmented sound should do nothing but draw attention to the band’s improved song writing and expanded vision. Most striking is the new attention being paid to the soft movements of their epics. Whereas the quiet moments on Celestial were stark, simple cracks in the heaviness, Oceanic’s tender movements are textured, expanded and beautiful, making each song more rewarding. Much of “Carry” is crisp and haunting with a simple, dark, wistful refrain that recalls a muscular, string-less Godspeed You Black Emperor. “Maritime” is a pretty concoction of bubbling keyboards and sparkling guitars that possesses no tension, no sense of impending doom; three minutes of light, concentrated beauty that washes away with a hazy, Eastern melody. “From Sinking” contains familiar, heartrending guitar work culled from the depths of indie rock.


The attention paid to melody and expansion has also affected ISIS’ middle ground, the area existing between their roar and their lull that before now hardly existed in any tangible form. ISIS songs are no longer loud-quiet-loud-quiet, they now contain grey-area interludes that do more to bridge the gaps that inevitably arise when a band works in the quiet-loud universe. ISIS’ new in-between skills are the first thing heard on Oceanic. “The Beginning and the End” begins with sharp, well-honed rock, and leaves you clueless as to what is to come, on the song and the album. “The Weight” is a slow, steady, 10-minute build that grows from a warm, looking-up-from-the-bottom-of-the-ocean haze to a controlled wail capped off by layers of female vocals. “Hym” ends the album with a distorted yet comforting movement that requires no screaming or violence to make it memorable.


Not that there isn’t plenty of violence to go around. While less concentrated, the heaviness found on Oceanic is as dense and fulfilling as anything found on their previous releases. “The Other”’s ominous intro is long-forgotten by the time the track reaches its fierce, grinding climax; a prolonged approximation of the fear that accompanies the realization that you’re drowning. “False Light” meanders between warm malevolence and shadowy beauty before descending upon you with coagulated vehemence. “Hym”, before becoming the cradling entity mentioned above, develops the finest post-Sabbath riffage laid down in eons only to have it drawn and quartered by a shrieking, hacking walls of sludge.


Oceanic is exactly where ISIS had to go. No longer content with mere physical devastation, ISIS have infused their songs with increased emotion and shimmering melody to finally make the destruction of their listeners total; a truly heavy feat.


Reviewed by: Clay Jarvis
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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