After their excellent 2002 progressive sludge album 'Oceanic' there was a widespread feeling that there was no way that US post-metal band 'Isis' could top it, and though this has proved to so far be true their 2004 follow-up album 'Panopticon' is nevertheless an excellent progressive metal album in its own right.
Whereas 'Oceanic' was themed around the seas, Panopticon's title refers to an 18th century social philosophy theory whereby prison inmates who are watched by an unseen watcher are coerced into conformity by virtue of their being under under omniscient observation. Essentially then the album is about a kind of ethereal perception from realms above, and this is rflected both in the blue-tinged, aerial cityscape shot on the front cover and in the music itself, which is still drum-led, sludgy and full of gradual, momentum-bulding riffs and gratifying moments of crashing convergence, but here this is accentuated my a geater emphasis on gentle, reflective melodicisms and soaring (yet still coarse) vocals, giving the album a more 'floaty' feeling than its more earth-bound precessor.
Once again Isis have produced a consistenly excellent album, and the fact that it is now quite as directly engaging as its prececessor is appears to be not so much a fault as a deliberate act of design, with panopticon both building on 'Oceanic' whilst taking the band's sound in an interesting new direction at the same time.
1. So Did We 07:30
2. Backlit 07:43
3. In Fiction 08:58
4. Wills Dissolve 06:47
5. Syndic Calls 09:39
6. Altered Course 09:56
7. Grinning Mouths 08:27
Total playing time 59:04
Panopticon is the third album from Boston based post rock outfit Isis, released on October 14th from Ipecac records.
The album art, a series of expanded satelite imagery is used to give an idea of the Panopticon, an omniscient entity of containment, derived from philosopher Jeremy Bentham's concept and design of the same name. There are quotations on the sleeve from technologists Rheingold and Steffen, which reintroduce the idea of 'the tower' a notion first explored in their debut album 'Celestial.'
From the first track, the brutal, unnerving clash of instruments, distorted guitar, clean vocals and relentless drums make it obvious that Panopticon will build a harsh, unforgiving post-metal soundscape of epic proportions. The almost constant repetition of passages, down-tuned riffs and subdued vocal patterns develop a strong idea of mimicry, which superbly complements the subject matter -- The all-seeing.
The juxtaposition of clean vocals in the early tracks with such unrelentingly brutal riffs give a real sense of disdain, regret and resentment, the whole album an ongoing struggle between the main, seemingly female character and the tower. Panopticon in its midsection seems to lull the listener into a false sense of security, with clean guitars and soft bass, before pulling the lever and descending into more of the unforgiving sonic crunch we saw in Oceanic, this time with heavily effect-laden guitar pieces and the crushing sense of destruction from Celestial. It would seem that Panopticon is the result of Isis's two previous albums, (Oceanic and Celestial) merging into one progressive, sludge-laden masterpiece.
The tracks are typically fairly long and sombre, although comparatively short for Isis.
As usual with this band, the album is best enjoyed in its entirety, as there is little variation in songs.
So Did We - 7:31
Backlit - 7:43
Wills Dissolve - 8:58
Syndic Calls - 6:48
Altered Course - 9:39
Grinning Mouths - 9:58
In Fiction - 8:27
For fans of Jesu, Cult Of Luna, Mogwai, Pelican and Red Sparowes, Panopticon will not disappoint.
Isis are well known within many circles, their debut, Celestial, garnered great praise from metal critics for its monolithic heaviness, signature sound and a mysterious theme that strayed far from the typical doomy gothica of the genre. It was an amazing album, but then they released "Oceanic", a rare crossover album that transcended genre boundaries and gained widespread critical attention with its somber, narrative post-metal. Panopticon continues along the same trajectory, shedding unnecessary aggression and striving for a more universally palatable sound.
Make no mistake, Panopticon is heavy, but its heaviness is defined by weighty, low tuned guitars and slowly unfolding progression, not adolescent aggression. Isis aren't out to intimidate you, this is emotive, powerful music that gains its strength through masterful management of tension and oppressive soundscaping. Each of the seven pieces is long and dynamic, borrowing more from Pink Floyd than any metal band, but things never get dull. Drop tuned guitar and bass play quietly off of each other against backdrops of subtle electronics, building to plateaus of sustained, slow riffs, and things just keep building towards an ecstatic peak.
Aaron Turner, guitarist and vocalist, is the biggest reminder of the bands roots. While vastly less harsh than on their early work, his vocal style varies between a pained scream and a barely coherent gravelly drawl. His singing is not at all bad, it just might prove a sticking point for newcomers. His voice is relatively low in the mix, which makes him sound like the protagonist of the bands widescreen drama, adding texture to the proggy bits and emotional impact to the climaxes. Lyrics, while seemingly quite important to the band, are fairly incomprehensible, which is sort of a shame, since they're actually quite good. Suffice to say they cover the broad theme of surveillance as suggested by the image of the panopticon (a special prison with complete visual coverage) and the surveillance photos inside.
This is moody, intelligent, atmospheric music that I would recommend to anyone who appreciates any kind of rock music. Metal fans will have the easiest time empathising with it, but for anyone who likes Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky or Mono it's just a matter of losing those trill, sparkly guitars. There are often very optimistic, shimmering moments on this CD that I'm sure would appeal to anyone, which brings me to mentioning the album they released after this, "In the Absence of Truth", which has a much lighter, more melodic sound, though no less interesting. If you're up to something slightly heavier, start with Oceanic, and then gobble up the rest of their excellent discography.
Star track: In Fiction
Isis are the leading band in the post-metal movement pioneered by the likes of Neurosis, and it's with their third album 'Panopticon' that the style really comes together. Based somewhat in the nineties post-rock of Mogwai and others (gotta love music critics and their ridiculous coining of genre titles), this music represents a mix of tempos, styles and emotions, all thrown together into drawn-out tracks that are just that little bit too unpredictable to prevent the listener from ever getting too relaxed, even in the frequent softer moments.
This works excellently as background music, but is certainly not confined to such duties, though I was glad to hear the hardcore shouting kept to a minimum. The louder and heavier musical sections, though bordering on cacophonous, merge perfectly with the atmospheric textures in a manner I didn't expect to hear pulled off so expertly, and the musicians are all talented without showing off about it.
1. So Did We
3. In Fiction
4. Wills Dissolve
5. Syndic Calls
6. Altered Course
7. Grinning Mouths
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 So Did We
3 In Fiction
4 Wills Dissolve
5 Syndic Calls
6 Altered Course
7 Grinning Mouths