Guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner and his cohorts (electronic musician Chris Mereschuk, bassist Jeff Caxide, and drummer Aaron Harris) didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do when they formed ISIS in 1997. They just felt a general “dissatisfaction with [our] past bands,” as Turner explained in an interview for the Feast Of Hate And Fear website. He added, “None of us were happy with what we were doing musically at the time, two of us [Turner and Caxide] lived together, we had similar tastes and similar record collections.” They started playing shows around Boston and up and down the East Coast; Mereschuk left and was replaced by Jay Randall of psychedelic grindcore outfit Agoraphobic Nosebleed; and they released two EPs, Mosquito Control and Red Sea. Then Randall left, and two guitarists — Michael Gallagher and Bryant Clifford Meyer, who doubled on keyboards — joined. This was the version of ISIS that recorded their full-length debut, 2000’s Celestial, and its companion EP, SGNL > 05. There would be no further lineup changes until the group dissolved in 2010.
I saw ISIS live three times. The first was pretty early in their career — I think it was in October 2000, so Celestial would only have been out for about six months. They were opening for Botch, who were calling it quits after releasing their masterpiece We Are The Romans. The show was at Brownies, a shitty little bar on Avenue A.
Botch were incredible, an absolute hurricane of metallic post-hardcore energy that made you feel like your heart was going to burst and shoot blood out your eyes, nose, mouth and ears, but in a good way. ISIS, on the other hand, were weird. Their actual songs — I don’t remember if I’d actually heard Celestial yet — were heavy as shit in a Godflesh-y, Neurosis-y way, with Turner’s monochromatic but somehow evocative barking buried in an avalanche of slow drums and densely layered guitar and keyboard riffs. But what I remember most about their set, what I’ll never forget, was when it broke down into a theremin/didjeridoo duet passage, these resonant drones, low and high, filling Brownies… and a bunch of amped-up metalcore fans standing there and taking it.
Although Turner was already running the “thinking man’s metal” label Hydra Head, ISIS releases always came out via others. Mosquito Control, Red Sea, Celestial, and SGNL > 05 were all on Escape Artist, a boutique outfit run by Relapse Records’ publicist, Gordon Conrad, that also put out albums by bands like KEN mode, Keelhaul, Anodyne, and Playing Enemy. But when it came time for full-length number two, the members of ISIS, in Turner’s words, wanted to find “a label with a slightly broader reach, both artistically and in terms of distribution.” Through their friend James Plotkin, they connected with Mike Patton, who turned out to already be a fan; ISIS would record for Ipecac for the rest of their career, starting with Oceanic, which was released 20 years ago this week.
Oceanic was the album on which ISIS truly became themselves. Though they’d been working with producer Matt Bayles more or less from the beginning, their sound underwent a radical metamorphosis. It became more open, less brutal (though Turner’s voice stayed a tuneless roar), with long stretches of shimmering clean guitar and almost ambient synth work. The female vocals from Maria Christopher of the indie/emo band 27 are a particularly brilliant addition. The songs are long, with an organic ebb and flow, and at their best moments, like on “Carry,” “Weight,” and “Hym,” they’re incredibly beautiful.
The album’s apparent subject matter is less beautiful; in fact, it’s creepy and unsettling. Oceanic is a concept album about a man looking back on the dissolution of his relationship with a woman who it turned out was having a parallel incestuous relationship with her brother. Wrecked by this, he (the narrator) walks into the ocean and drowns himself.
You’d never know this without reading the lyrics, of course, because Turner’s delivery is basically anti-communicative. He barfs out each word in a hoarse bellow, stretching them out to the length of a full breath and in the process rendering them indecipherable; he sounds like a grizzly bear roaring into a distorted microphone. I mean, I didn’t know it until I started researching this piece, because I’m someone who doesn’t really care about lyrics and in fact actively prefers a) instrumental music; b) music in languages I don’t speak, like Yoruba or Arabic or Japanese; c) music where the lyrics are indecipherable, like death metal. So what I love about Oceanic isn’t what Turner is shouting about; it’s the way the guitars and bass and keyboards will all lock into a slowly descending riff like the one that starts about four minutes into “False Light” and just ride it for what seems like forever, until — like they do about six minutes into “False Light” — they drop a massive, chugging metal riff on you like a concrete slab falling from the ceiling. (Turner shouts “Discover bliss and serenity in drowning!” underneath that huge riff, but who cares?)
Every element of ISIS’ sound is completely locked in on Oceanic. Turner’s and Gallagher’s guitars are alternatingly huge and mournful (and often both); Meyer’s also playing guitar, but his electronics add creepy ambience, filtered sound effects, and occasional countermelodies; Caxide’s postpunk-unto-dub bass is a deep rumble in the mix until the moments when it rises up like a whale breaking the ocean’s surface; and Harris’ drums are taut and metronomic, but leave enough suppleness and air in the music that it always feels like it’s flowing, not being pushed along. It’s divided neatly into two halves. You get four songs in a row: “The Beginning and the End,” “The Other,” “False Light,” and “Carry,” then there are two short instrumentals, “Untitled” and “Maritime,” and finally three more songs, “Weight,” “From Sinking,” and “Hym,” to bring it all home.
“Weight” is the longest track on the album at 10:45, and also its most lush and melancholy. It begins with a nearly three-minute intro section of gentle, airy synths and delicately ringing guitars that almost sound like whale songs. Harris’ drums don’t begin until a minute into the piece, and they gradually get louder until they’re at full volume, but all the other instruments are still toned down. When vocals appear at the four-minute mark, it’s not Turner’s voice we hear, but Maria Christopher’s, and she only sings two lines, then disappears until the piece’s final two minutes, when she repeats her two lines again and again until the end.
Following the release of Oceanic, “Weight” became a key moment in ISIS shows. Between 2004 and 2017, the band put out a series of live recordings from various points in their history, seven volumes in all. The first two were from their tours in support of Oceanic, and each featured radically extended versions of “Weight.” At a September 2003 show in San Francisco which became the first volume in the series, Dominic Aitchison of Mogwai joined them to play guitar on a 13-minute instrumental version. The second volume documented a March 2003 show in Stockholm, at which Maria Christopher and Ayal Naor (her partner in the band 27) both guested on “Weight,” which again stretched past the 13-minute mark. There’s yet another version, from November 2005, on the fourth live CD; for that one, Justin Chancellor of Tool guests on bass and Troy Zeigler, who plays in Serj Tankian’s solo band, adds percussion. On the fifth, a full-album performance of Oceanic recorded in London in July 2006, the special guest on “Weight” is Justin Broadrick. On the sixth volume, a Portland show from November 2007, Christopher and Naor reprised their roles from 2003. (27 opened that tour, which I saw a couple of weeks before the Portland date; I was mostly there to see Oxbow, who were the middle act on the bill.)
In 2004, ISIS released Oceanic: Remixes/Reinterpretations, a two-CD set of tracks originally released on three 12″ EPs. It features a pretty wide range of artists from the electronic/noise world, including Fennesz, Thomas Köner, James Plotkin, Tim Hecker, Venetian Snares, and one of the guys from Dälek. None of the remixes are totally radical, and most of them are kind of forgettable, with one exception. The set ends with a version of “Hym” remixed by Justin Broadrick, and he turns it into a 15-minute epic of looped riffs and vocal samples that sounds like something by the group he was leading at that time, Jesu. It’s simultaneously crude, like he chopped it together on a laptop, and glorious.
The third time I saw ISIS was at Webster Hall on their farewell tour in June 2010. They didn’t play “Weight” that night; their set consisted of “Threshold Of Transformation” and “Ghost Key” from their final album, Wavering Radiant; “Collapse And Crush” from Celestial; “Not In Rivers, But In Drops” from In The Absence Of Truth; “In Fiction” and “So Did We” from Panopticon; and they closed it all out with “The Beginning And The End” from Oceanic. The drums were soaked in an absurd amount of reverb, and Jeff Caxide was easily the loudest person onstage; his bass made every song sound like a cover of the Cure’s “Fascination Street.” Between that and the keyboards, they came off like a Gothic postpunk version of Pink Floyd. It was great, but they were a completely different band from the one I’d seen a decade earlier.
At the time of their breakup, ISIS released a collective statement that they had “done everything we wanted to do, said everything we wanted to say,” and they’ve stuck by that. They’ve stayed broken up, except for a one-off performance under the name Celestial at a benefit for the family of the late Cave In bassist Caleb Scofield. That self-discipline and keen sense of what they were (and what they weren’t) served them very well while they were around. Their evolution from the Godflesh/Neurosis-style industrial metal of Celestial to the proggier, jammier In The Absence Of Truth and Wavering Radiant, the latter of which even featured clean vocals, was organic and gradual. (It might have been a little too gradual on their weakest album, Panopticon, which often feels like a rehash of Oceanic. But they don’t have any genuinely bad records.) Still, Oceanic was the peak, the album on which ISIS’ style came together. They inspired a lot of other bands — witness the jokes about “NeurISIS” as a metal subgenre — but they were unique.