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Hesher's Pet 

Isis holds metal to smarty-pants standards

Wednesday, Apr 4 2007
In the theoretical "school of rock," Isis frontman Aaron Turner would be the kid at the head of the class with an eloquent answer for every question.

Or maybe he'd be the too-smart-for-school kid who'd rather read the works of French philosophers than pay attention to the teacher's lessons. Either way, Turner and Isis stand apart from the current class of commercial metal acts. The band's music, described as everything from "avant-garde rock" and "post-metal" to "experimental" and "prog-metal," defies set definitions. One thing it's not is "marketable."

With mostly instrumental songs that stretch well past the six-minute mark, and a discography that includes five pseudo-concept albums (the latest being In the Absence of Truth, released last October on Mike Patton's Ipecac Recordings label), the members of Isis — guitarist/vocalist Turner, drummer Aaron Harris, bassist Jeff Caxide, guitarist Michael Gallagher, and guitar/electronics whiz Bryant Clifford Meyer — know their music is far from radio-friendly. And that's just the way they like it.

"A lot of people think there's an oversaturation of really commercial, empty music being made solely for the purpose of entertainment, with no real substance or content behind it," Turner says. "For every action, there's a reaction."

The reaction for Isis has been an expanding fan base that includes followers of other progressive bands such as Tool (with whom Isis toured last year), Neurosis, the Melvins, and Godflesh. Formed in Boston in late 1997, Isis relocated to Los Angeles in 2003 on the heels of its acclaimed album Oceanic. The following year, Revolver magazine named Isis the 12th-heaviest band of all time, and fans such as Tool bassist Justin Chancellor and Godflesh founder Justin Broadrick came calling to collaborate.

But what is it, exactly, that Isis does? One answer is that Isis is a mental masseuse, a band that rubs intellectualism into the deep tissues of an ever-morphing genre. In fact, out of all the labels thrown Isis' way, the band has openly embraced only one: "thinking-man's metal."

And Turner wants listeners to think more than ever before. Oceanic tells the story of a man who falls in love with a woman, then discovers she's been carrying on an incestuous relationship and dives off a cliff to his death. Panopticon (2004) is a politically charged album that uses philosopher Michel Foucault's ideas on subversive government activities.

But Turner's not talking about the concept behind In the Absence of Truth. "There's a lot of emphasis these days placed on explaining everything in such a fashion that there's really nothing left for the listener or reader to explore themselves. It's all spelled out," Turner says. "So it's interesting to leave some of that stuff open-ended."

There are, however, some obvious symbols and themes that recur throughout Isis albums: the mosquito, the control tower, and, most prominent, a powerful female. Even the band's name is taken from an ancient-Egyptian mother goddess.

"As manly as we might or might not be, we have to acknowledge that there is a feminine part of our persona, and that the world isn't made up of absolutes," Turner explains. "To achieve balance, you have to recognize every facet of yourself and everyone else around you."

This dichotomy is audible in Isis' music, as well. While Turner's (usually unintelligible) vocals often take on a guttural, death-metal growl that rumbles over spiraling guitars and crashing cymbals, there are also many soothing soundscapes in the songs.

"Our music has a more gentle, feminine side to it, as well as the more primal, animalistic, male-testosterone trip," Turner says. "I guess it's partially about achieving and maintaining some level of balance."

The most overt reference to a female character on Isis' latest disc is the track "Dulcinea." The fictional obsession of Don Quixote, Dulcinea is a homely peasant elevated to the role of the feminine ideal by what Turner calls "Quixote's dementia."

"That is just toying with the idea of perception, and the very thin line between illusion and reality," he adds.

And what about the album art Turner created, which resembles a bunch of bandages coming unraveled? "The drawings themselves are somewhat representational," Turner says. "And there's a progression of ideas from this very tightly bound, opaque mass into something that eventually starts to split up and open up and evolve into nothingness."

To further uncover the concepts embedded inside In the Absence of Truth, listeners will have to explore more of Turner's influences, which include Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Jeremy Bentham, and the philosophies of Islamic cult leader Hassan-I Sabbah (the album takes its title from a quote often attributed to Sabbah: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted").

"Much of working on this record, for me, was about the power and nature of perception, and the ways in which it affects our behavior and the way we see the world," Turner says of the quote. "I'll just leave it at that, and people can draw their own conclusions."

About The Author

Niki D'Andrea


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