posted on 10/2004 By:
Isis have successfully done something that most bands never get an opportunity to even try. That is, they have followed brilliance with brilliance. Their last album, 2002's Oceanic, was mind-blowingly good, finding the band maturing as songwriters and further developing their sound. In fact, it was so good that many fans will be a little disappointed with this album simply because they love Oceanic so much that whatever follows it will suffer from comparison. There will be incessant fan discussions and comparisons between these two albums, and for what it’s worth, I’m not sure whether this album is as good as Oceanic. But I do know that once again Isis has blown my mind, and that Panopticon is one of my favorite albums of the year.
Isis is on Mike Patton’s Ipecac label, along with genre crossing bands like Fantomas, Tomahawk, and Melvins; bands that appeal greatly to metal fans without being great wholly metal bands. And, while Panopticon’s target audience is assuredly the metal crowd, this album, like the last one, has great crossover potential. Isis has a unique sound, but in the metal world they are stylistic cousins to bands like Neurosis and Cult of Luna (who is releasing, Salvation, a phenomenal album of their own on the same date). However, Isis also have much in common with indie bands like Slint and The For Carnation, in style if not in sound. These bands all use slow and deliberate methods to build lush, layered melodies. Sometimes tremendously sparse, sometimes amazingly heavy, but never taking a direct approach, these very lengthy compositions both mesmerize and pulverize. These are all exceptional bands, but what separates Isis from the crowd is their skill in creating atmosphere by weaving melodies. Tons of metal bands use melody, but many do so in a fairly predictable way. This masterful display of craftsmanship is a talent far and above just about any metal band out there, and is in a market usually cornered by atmosphere masterpieces in the alternative world like The Cure’s Disintegration, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and Radiohead’s Kid A. Part of what made Oceanic such a fascinating album is how well the aquatic theme of the album so perfectly fits the band’s sound. The word that comes to mind: tidal. Individually and collectively, the melodies rise and fall, approach and recede, feel delicate as parts and overwhelming powerful as a collective.
Panopticon finds the band continuing the evolution evident on Oceanic, and if anything this album is more mellow than the last one. The vocals are more varied and much improved. There is still the requisite gruff hardcore shout, but many of the lyrics are sung with gravelly melody. The guitar and bass tones are fantastic, as is the production in general. And that is of critical importance for a band and album such as this. The band constructs gorgeous songs by having each instrument play its own lines around the melody. More often than not, each instrument does its own thing, then as the songs gain intensity the parts come together playing the same lines to create a wall of intensity, before again taking divergent paths. Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of the songwriting is that even the most sparse moments still have purpose in the progression of the song. This is something some bands fail to accomplish, and the quiet parts therefore feel like empty space or the buildups feel like they are noodling or spacey. Definitely not the case here. These songs are crafted down to the smallest intricacy.
Each song is lengthy and multidimensional, and the production and songwriting style give the album a very consistent and seamless sound. This is one of those albums that is instantly identifiable and that envelopes you from the first song, keeping you wrapped up until the final note. Therefore, none of the tracks are easily identifiable as stand outs. Rather, it is easier to point to parts of songs as the highpoints on the album. I won’t bore you with the track times of mine, I’ll let you find your own.
Clearly, I cannot give a much more positive endorsement for Panopticon. If this style of music is your thing, you won’t find much better this year. And if you like this style and missed Oceanic, proceed immediately to the record store and buy both. Panopticon may not be a perfect metal album—there is way too much I love about metal that is absent. But this is a near perfect album for fans of intense, well crafted music.
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