A ‘failed’ experiment
I say ‘failed’ because this album is not a total loss – far from it. It’s still good but while the album is on it becomes apparent that everything could have been done a little bit better. It’s not as if the band were running out of steam when writing it either, given that the songs are more ambitious than on any of their past efforts, and as is the case with their entire career they aren’t repeating themselves. However, the songs simply never come together quite as well as they do on past or future efforts, and while the results yielded from this experiment are interesting and can work they aren’t quite up to standard for a band as great as Isis. The band themselves admit this was a disappointment, and in general they had too many ideas and didn’t know what to do with them. While I’d agree, those ideas do occasionally dovetail to create something truly wonderful, as Isis’ music almost always is.
This album is an experiment in the sense that the band delve very heavily into the post-rock and progressive rock influences that were creeping into their music with Oceanic and Panopticon, and at the same time a lot of the sludge influence those works carried has been dialled back significantly. As a consequence this is by far the least heavy Isis album – the heavy, sludgy aspects of their sound are spread more thinly and most of the runtime is spent playing delicate clean sections, driven by keyboards and guitar chords. The heavier sections are largely used to release tension and don’t make up the main body of a song as they would have done on the preceding two albums. In general the clean sections are much better than the heavier ones, and there are two reasons for this. The first issue is a simple one, and that is that the riffs, when they do come into the music, aren’t all that impressive. They tend to be predictable in construction or simply a louder chord repeatedly hit, and because of this the impact these heavy parts have is substantially less than say, the ending of ‘In Fiction’.
The second issue becomes apparent to anyone who’s listened to Panopticon, which to my mind is both the greatest example of the band implementing progressive songwriting into their sound and their finest achievement. On that album the quieter parts of the songs, even at their most minimal, never felt overly repetitive. Every minute of that album was spent progressing the music in a flowing and logical fashion by slowly developing just a small handful of musical ideas, and just about every clean section on it was building up to a huge explosion of sludgy, enormous riffs and passionate, intense vocals. On this however most of the clean sections meander too much and don’t build up to the heavier parts all that well. The band spends too much time throwing in new ideas and not enough time developing them. It doesn’t help that the songs are made up almost entirely of this clean noodling, meaning that the songs themselves tend to meander before suddenly breaking into a heavier section in a somewhat unsatisfying way. This issue is admittedly somewhat mitigated by the fact the quieter parts of the music are actually quite good and make up most of the music, meaning the less than impressive riff-driven parts don’t take up too much time.
I feel like the album would have been better had they made a full on progressive/post-rock release and did away with the metal influence entirely, as they would no longer be aiming for contrast in the music and could focus entirely on crafting delicate, atmospheric music using these quieter sections. They achieve this to an extent when the songs aren’t heavy, with all of the songs taking on a larger than life, spacey and tranquil feel at one point or another. Another thing to note on the album is expansion of musical technicality: the keys on this simply have more to them than past efforts and are used extensively to great effect. The growls are deep and powerful and give the heavier sections some intensity, while the clean singing is smoother and more emotive, to fit the softer music. The bass is more intricate and plays a greater role in the music than before, ringing away to great effect as in the intro to ‘Not in Rivers, But in Drops’. The drumwork, in spite of the overuse of a rolling tribal beat, is more detailed and loose and fits the music perfectly. In general they do succeed in exploring the quieter dimensions of their sound on this album and had the songs been more focused and riffing been better this would truly be on the level of their last two releases. It isn’t even like the songs always meander and I’d point to ‘Dulcinea’ as an example of that. That pummelling build up towards the end, beginning with a rolling tribal drumbeat before the rest of the band follow suit and come crashing in leading up to that huge ending is fantastic. The first section of ‘Holy Tears’ is an example of the band writing better riffs for the heavy parts of the music, giving these sections more impact than on the rest of the album. Had the album had more moments like this I would not be complaining one bit: when they occasionally get these parts right, they really get it right.
As I’ve mentioned, I don’t want to give the wrong impression about this album. It is an enjoyable and overall a good work despite its flaws and is an important release for the band. They explore musical territory they had seldom entered in the past and the more delicate, prog rock strains of this album would be successfully combined with the power of their previous works on their excellent swansong Wavering Radiant. That said, those trying to hear what this band is all about should definitely start with Oceanic and Panopticon; while this is an important stepping stone for the band and a good album, it doesn’t represent the band’s music at its finest.