Ah Isis, suddenly you look up and they have seemingly been around for ever, for me ever since a Rock Sound CD (which also featured brilliant Botch and Converge tracks I seem to recall), opened my eyes to this elegant, but frequently brutal entity. They were of course one of the first post-metal acts to both be assigned that slightly pompous term, but to also fuse slightly pompous Pink Floyd atmospheric stadium rock with deep, down-tuned grooves, hoarse, bereft screaming and a hardcore, bleak aesthetic generally.
They have fashioned some of the most brilliant, but also challenging stuff in this genre, and inspired 1000s to slow down and groove out, possibly with too much chorus on the bass. They specialised in carving out monolithic, swaggering statements of intent, from ‘Poison Eggs’ on the first Mosquito Control EP, to the wondrous ‘Ghost Key’ off perhaps what will eventually to be hailed as even better than breakthrough album, Oceanic, namely their final instalment, Wavering Radiant.
See the problem with Isis though, is that live, their glacial perfection in execution has often made them too austere to maintain your attention over a whole set, like an artist’s installation with a bowel-rattling soundtrack, but not enough blood pumping to avoid it all becoming a bit too cerebral. And on record, this can occasionally be an obstacle, for example on the unforgiving opener from Panopticon, which is like a maths teacher’s feverish but autistically elongated and precise wet dream.
So this is why this collection of rarities, covers and demo versions is such a treat, beginning as it does with some much more human sounding rehearsal-raw versions of latter songs such as ‘Ghost Key’ and ‘Threshold of Transformation,’ as well as a couple of Oceanic belters, ‘False Light’ and ‘Carry’. The tunes reveal themselves as more humble and accessible than their steely, diamond-precise album counterparts, but for me, this really endears them to the listener, both as songs and as a band. For this is a band where each song is really a true journey, and if you’re not sitting comfortably at the beginning, it could be a long, bumpy ride. So in the case of ‘Threshold of Transformation’, the vocals are less sleekly delivered, sounding more like Harvey Milk than death metal, and all the better for it, warm gruffness bringing the soul back to what had been, partly at least, polished up for the metal masses. The only problem with the tantalising, instrumental rendition of ‘Ghost Key’ here is you don’t get the drops of silver lead guitar in the intro, with only the slightly dowdy secondary guitar for company, but it’s a great insight into a fine song in its final stages of construction, and like the other demo versions on this album, a nice window into the soul of what had seemed a hermetically sealed band. Similarly, ‘Wills Dissolve’ shows that this band wasn’t fashioning its big, colourful sprawls on Panopticon in the studio, here it sounds like a jam, albeit a very elegantly orchestrated one.
These may be for the completists however, but the treat for all fans is the sprawling, yet emotionally focused new, unreleased ‘Grey Divide,’ which is a nice link between the feel of Oceanic, and Wavering Radiant, and reminds you why you loved this band, if perhaps later more refined iterations have spoken less to you than stuff like Ocean’s most windswept moments did. It sounds weirdly familiar, but that’s only because the band’s essence is so unashamedly simple, classic and filmic, like the inevitable but always impactful shot of a long desert highway.
Then on the second CD, you are taken back to gnarlier territory, with Isis’ rough and ready, hammering cover of ‘Streetcleaner’ by Godflesh, reverentially paying homage to this very obvious early influence. Sabbath cover ‘Hand of Doom’ cover follows, which removes any lightness of touch those Aston oiks might have given it, but is still fun. It’s admittedly a bit ‘oh here are their perfect signifiers, all present and correct – Sabbath- check, Godflesh – check,’ and I’m left wondering what their cover of Stevie Wonder’s Master Blaster would have been like (honouring their dub tendencies). God awful is the probable answer.
Other highlights on the second CD are ‘Pliable Foe’ and ‘Way Through Broken Branches’, which are both relaxed, almost Floydy, and appeared on the Isis/Melvins LP. And the closer, an acoustic version of 20 Minutes/40 Years from the final album, is a poignant, again low-key way to bow out, in what is probably Isis’ last ever statement as a band, assuming a ‘best of’ isn’t on the cards.
As I said, this is for completist, but does show some nice, intimate and as yet hidden angles to this fabulous but previously somewhat aloof band.
This release also comes with an accompanying DVD that features 5 official videos that the band compiled over their lifetime, but alas they weren’t included with this promo so are not available for review.
Scribed by: James Parker