‘Fire as far as the eyes can see’
(Note: Whilst most versions of this EP feature their 1998 demo as tracks 4-7, these will be considered separately in a review of said release as I feel the two sets of tracks are different enough to warrant their own reviews. Hence this review will only cover the first 3 songs of the 7 track release, or the only 3 songs on the 1999 vinyl release.)
Isis were always a band in transition – if one wasn’t aware of the artists at work at all they could be forgiven for thinking Celestial was written by a completely different band to In the Absence of Truth, even though they were written by the same 5 people. In general, their adjacent releases sound noticeably different to one another too, as they would evolve substantially with each release. It’s for these reasons that earlier Isis releases would be surprising to many: for one, their earliest work (their demo, EPs and Celestial) sound nothing like what most associate with the band. In addition, the evolution of their sound across this stage of their career was much smaller than say, the leap between Celestial and Oceanic. This brings us to The Red Sea, which exemplifies these traits.
In general, these are among the heaviest and most extreme songs the band would ever produce. It can be easy to forget that before the post-rock and progressive metal/rock influence crept into their music Isis were making searingly heavy sludge metal. Across this release there are many examples of excellent sludge metal riffing whether they’re going for a brutal and chaotic feel that leans towards hardcore, or a tense and droning style that leans towards doom metal. The drums are a similar story – complementing the riffs perfectly no matter what tempo and no matter what atmosphere the band are trying to achieve. The sound of the music is a bottom-heavy and thick one and the instruments sound crisp and loud – the guitar tone is a vast and sludgy mass and the drums crash into the front of the mix, giving the music the sonic clarity and weight it needs. The vocals take something of a back seat in the mix but that doesn’t rob them of their presence in the music. Aaron’s vocal performance here is a distorted, raspy shriek – none of the shouts, growls or cleans heard on later albums are anywhere to be found. He sounds even more intense than what he was doing on Mosquito Control, and matches the sheer power of the instruments.
Even though this is their shortest ever release – a mere 15 minutes comprised of 3 tracks – there is a surprising level of variety across them. ‘Charmicarmicarmicat Shines to Earth’ is a noisy intro piece that is reminiscent of ‘Emission of the Signal’ from Sawblade: it’s less than 2 and a half minutes of a very slow and ringing sludge metal riff while Aaron shouts over it in a distorted, booming voice. It’s a powerful way to set the stage for what’s to come and a very intense track in its own right. ‘The Minus Times’ begins with a rather fast and frenetic passage before settling into a crushing mid-tempo groove that still brings frequent change-ups in the riffs. It listens like a much better produced and more refined version of a track from their demo, and is the single most brutal thing the band has ever written. By contrast, the title track is an epic that is akin to the more elaborate and atmospheric style witnessed on Celestial. Starting with a slow, droning riff it progresses to more mid-tempo territory over the course of 3 and a half minutes before suddenly giving way to a lone acoustic melody. Samples are slowly faded into the music before the band comes crashing in again, with the guitars playing an electric rendition of the acoustic melody. This continues to the end of the track and makes for an impactful ending to both the track and the EP. This song also marks one of the earliest examples of their music focusing more on atmosphere than outright heaviness, making it a very important track for their musical development.
The Red Sea is probably the most transitional Isis release despite its brief duration, bringing together a more refined form of the style used on their demo and the style that would set the stage for their later, better known albums. This gives the release a pleasing circularity to it – being a final send-off to that older style while initiating the transition to something new. It may not have the same level of sonic and conceptual unity of other Isis albums but it does contain two of their finest songs and it’s a watershed moment in their discography. If these aren’t good enough reasons to get this I don’t know what is.