You’re hip to packaging. So what do you expect from a bunch of white rock guys with guitars and such who call their band Isis? Big hair, right? Maybe portentous lyrics about tombs and moonlight, or even proper Egyptian liturgy, like the death-metal chants of the South Carolinian band Nile. But though Isis do play doom metal, of a sort, they are Bostonians with a hardcore background and a sleek design sense and not a lot of hair—guys you’d expect to play alt-metal under a name like Rivet or Lugnut or Cable, which was the name of the alternately lumbering and lacerating bassist Jeff Caxide’s old band. Sabbath, it must be said, does loom large over their mournful riffs. But on the new Panopticon, the follow-up to 2002’s breakthrough Oceanic, Isis make it clear, as if it weren’t already, that they are totally 21st-century guys, with informed worries about technology and cover art devoid of gothic tracery or corpsepaint cartoons.
Unlike the nu-metal brats, though, Isis know that staying true to the essential economy of hardcore does not mean you can’t go for the Big Picture, either in expansive sound, absurd song length (average here is eight minutes), or ambitious thematic concept. (Check out that Foucault quotation!) All you need to “keep it real” is to make sure some things stay spare. So Isis balance their sweep with almost tediously restrained drums and frontman Aaron Turner’s average singing voice, so infrequent or buried in the mix that it effectively renders Panopticon an instrumental record.
Isis deserve their name, in other words, because they have achieved a genuinely epic sound, not by aping Scandinavian black metal, but by melting down their own peculiar influences—including, most importantly, the dread commotions of their pals Neurosis—into a modern American hammer of the gods. That said, Isis is a goddess, the “Divine Mother” Turner sang about on 2001’s experimental but basically uninteresting SGNL>05 EP. Why this invocation of the queen of heaven? Because while the band’s riffs are sludgerific, their greatness now turns as much on the softer stuff: layered, pensive, and sometimes downright pretty passages whose mellowness is not, in that tried-and-true metal formula, simply a palette cleanser for monster chords.
“In Fiction,” “Syndic Calls,” and “Wills Dissolve”—the latter laced with electronic chittering that would feel at home on Kid A—all open with slow, vaguely psychedelic space-outs that normal bands put in the middle of their long songs. These probing interplays, which sometimes build and sometimes drift, recall the glacial indie-pluckings of Bedhead or the less atonal drones of Sonic Youth, although it’s fair to say they sometimes sound like Pink Floyd too. But if you want to make an epic soundscape big enough to swallow up the listener, you can do worse than meddle with your metal.