With their sophomore release, 2002’s Oceanic, post-metal quintet ISIS established the basis for what would become their signature sound – heavy, distortion and reverb-laden guitars juxtaposed with periods of quiet and delicate melodies, and vocals that are sometimes screamed, sometimes sung, and frequently absent – as well as their influence and credentials in the avant-garde metal scene. This sound was further refined, reaching its apotheosis on the 2004 album, Panopticon, a record so finely crafted that the removal of a single element would irreparably damage the whole.
While the band progressed their sound from the sludge and doom that characterised their early EPs, and the brutal rhythms of their début album, Celestial, Panopticon doesn’t see ISIS abandon their commitment to creating challenging music. After all, the shortest song on Panopticon – Wills Dissolve – runs to nearly seven minutes, and the album’s theme is that of surveillance, the police state, and the intrusion of technology into private spaces, with the title being a reference to the prison designed by Jeremy Bentham which aimed to achieve compliance and control through paranoia, an idea explored further nearly two centuries later by French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Heady concepts indeed.
Even when it comes to introducing the listener to the album, ISIS offer no quarter as opening track, So Did We, launches a full sonic assault that could have come straight from Celestial. While screamed vocals can prove to be an acquired taste, anyone not keen on this vocal style would do well to persevere as Aaron Turner’s voice is utilised more as just another instrument in the mix, a source of musical texture, rather than a focal point. In Fiction ebbs and flows for nine-minutes, repeatedly building and releasing tension and generating a sense of ominous unease.
Wills Dissolve, Syndic Calls, and Altered Course offer a wonderfully emotive triptych that makes excellent use of the layered guitars of Turner, Bryant Clifford Meyer, and Michael Gallagher, as well as the bass work from Jeff Caxide, and Aaron Harris’s drumming. In short, every element works perfectly to achieve the band’s ends and engage the listener. Justin Chancellor of Tool fame appears on the ten-minute instrumental Altered Course, and this is Panopticon’s standout track with ISIS deftly holding the listener’s attention without ever resorting to bombast. Grinning Mouths bookends nicely with So Did We, ending the record almost as abruptly as it started yet never sacrificing tonal consistency.
After listening to Panopticon, it’s easy to understand why ISIS were so well regarded by critics, fans, and their musical compatriots.