An interesting artefact
Sawblade was always something of an oddity in Isis’ discography, which pertains to its nature and purpose. Unlike anything else they’ve done this was never intended to be a main part of their discography, having been thrown together to be sold during a 1999 tour with Neurosis and Candiria. And when I say ‘thrown together’, it really has been: there’s no cover art at all and it’s more a compilation of unreleased tracks they had at the time – two covers from The Red Sea sessions and two demos that were recorded at home. Hence it’s a collection of unrelated songs as opposed to a unified piece of work, something else which sets it apart from the rest of their discography.
The two demos bookend this release, and due to their experimental nature they may put some people off. The opener ‘Emission of the Signal’ is 5 or so minutes of a singular chugging sludge riff, with higher-end guitar noise coming in later, timed to the riff and contrasting with it, as well as sampled thudding in the background of the track. It’s quite good in its own way, being a sort of build up to the meat of the EP, but the problem is it’s too long – it could easily have been cut down to 3 and a half minutes and the effect would have been the same. The closing track is ‘House of Low Culture’, an 11 minute ambient/drone piece. Its first 4 minutes consist solely of rumbling sound effects which then give way to a guitar melody. The guitar work becomes less melodic with time as it shifts to heavier, more droning territory before fading out somewhat and allowing a sparse keyboard line to take over. It’s a very good song, remaining interesting throughout and creating a tranquil, reflective atmosphere, however its sparse construction and sluggish progression may make it less immediately accessible to some.
The other two tracks are covers of absolute classics – Black Sabbath’s ‘Hand of Doom’ and Godflesh’s ‘Streetcleaner’. Both of these tracks were recorded during The Red Sea sessions and as such they have a polished, crisp and loud sound to them with a very pronounced low end. The drums in particular are quite loud and the guitar tone is immensely distorted, sludgy and massive even by Isis standards. This goes some way to making both of these tracks improvements on the originals, but it complements ‘Streetcleaner’ much better as the power of this rather claustrophobic, intense production style can be felt more on a pummelling track like that than the comparatively laid back ‘Hand of Doom’. This is partially why ‘Hand of Doom’ is the lesser of the two covers, with the other reason being that they don’t do a whole lot with it. Aaron sings in a similar style to Ozzy (and does a better job of it) and the song is a little slower than before, but besides this it’s very similar to the original. It’s good and all but it’s sort of unremarkable, and it can easily be argued that the track loses some of its character by replacing Ozzy’s distinctive voice with a technically better performance that’s merely an imitation.
On ‘Streetcleaner’ however, they very much don’t go through the motions: the drums are live as opposed to a drum machine, the guitars don’t drone as much, and the production as stated is fuller and louder than before. The 40 second spoken word intro from the original has been cut completely, as has some of the outro. As a result the track, while perhaps less mechanical-sounding than before, is made even heavier and more direct, with the band upping the intensity to levels that even this song’s namesake album could never match while still managing to create a hellish atmosphere like the original. The riffing is more brutal and tense than ever and Aaron shouts in a manner similar to Justin but with more power, and his voice has more distortion and reverb to match the newfound intensity of the music. It’s not often that a song becomes a classic for the band covering it, but Isis succeeded in doing so; it’s an amazing rendition of an excellent song. While it can be argued that the loss of the drum machine and overall machine-like qualities to the sound makes the song less distinctive, this is undeniably a more remarkable and interesting cover than ‘Hand of Doom’ as they do something a little different with it. I’d even go as far to say I prefer it to the original, but this is a matter of personal taste.
This is a good release as you’d expect (though also uneven, as you wouldn’t expect), however I would highly recommend you don’t buy it, as its limited number of copies makes it a collector’s piece with elevated prices. The CD releases start at around $38 and can fetch as much as $320, while the vinyl releases start at about $70 and go up to over $325. To my mind no singular album, no matter how good it may be, is ever worth this much and that’s especially true for a half hour, 4 track EP comprised of two covers and two demos. It can’t be stressed enough: either buy these tracks on Bandcamp, or if you wish to own them in physical form, the two covers (but not the demos) can be found on Temporal, along with many other rare tracks. These are much more cost-effective ways of obtaining this material, and are very much preferable options to buying the EP on its own.