If Isis’s Oceanic established the band as an important and distinctive figure in the metal world, Panopticon is their effort to expand further outside the boundaries of that world, and it’s a mighty successful one at that. If I had to come up with some frames of reference, I suppose I’d say Panopticon combines the lofty spiritual ambitions of Tool, the cosmic instrumental sound of Mogwai, and (at times) the plodding heaviness of Mastodon, but Isis still offer up a musical vision of their very own. Everything about this album is epic: epic music, epic vocals, epic arrangements, and above all epic song lengths. These guys are clearly out to test the listener’s attention span, as this seven-track outing clocks in at about an hour. Compare this to Pig Destroyer’s latest effort, at 21 tracks covering about 32 minutes, and you can see you’re in for a harrowing listen.
Befitting their continued evolution, Panopticon sees Isis getting even better at tempering their metallic fury with some heavy doses of mellowness. It’s hardly unprecedented for heavy bands to inject extended passages of relative quiet into their music (see Opeth), but Isis are still notable for just how seemlessly they manage to mix such disparate elements. Their songs don’t just shift arbitrarily from one sound to another; they shrink and recede from heavy passages to lighter ones and back, managing to maintain a consistent mood whether they’re coasting over you or pounding you over the head. Much like Oceanic, while Panopticon is divided into separate tracks, it’s essentially one extended atmospheric piece, with a freeform structure that’s even more conducive to exploration and experimentation than its predecessor. Although Panopticon is still rather heavy, Isis have now all but abandoned their Neurosis-style depression-metal sound for a looser, more grandiose feel, and I must say it suits them quite well.
Since Panopticon isn’t as heavy overall as its predecessor, it stands to reason that Aaron Turner’s vocal intensity would have to be adjusted to match, and he does indeed take it down a notch here. It’s obvious that Isis are aiming for a more versatile and far-reaching sound, and Aaron helps them along here by expanding his range beyond his typical monotone. The cavernous, thudding howl that he used to such great effect on Oceanic is still in evidence at some points, but Aaron also mixes in plenty of cleaner, even melodic, vocals. On the whole they’re pretty solid if unspectacular, although Isis’s vocals have always been more about complementing the music than standing on their own anyway.
Of course, since Panopticon is even more predominantly instrumental than Oceanic, the vocals typically take a backseat anyway. Their dual-guitar assault is usually front and center, which is as it should be, as Panopticon delivers some of the most daunting guitar work in recent memory. While there are some tricky polyrhythms to be found here, Isis’s guitar sound is more about atmosphere than anything else, with the two axes intertwining perfectly to create a vast wash of sound highlighted by a mix of thunderous riffs and fragile tonalities.
The drumming is a plus as well, as it’s rather technical but more about furthering the overall atmosphere than anything else. At times it even borders on metronomic, which would normally be something of a downer, but here it only adds to the hypnotic feel that the guitars and vocals create. Even the bass is represented here by a nice, loping rumble, which would be notable even if only for the fact that so much of this genre lacks bass presence.
Although I give this album a hearty recommendation, I should note that it’s not for everyone. Its sustained mood and persistently mid-tempo pace will certainly be viewed as captivating by some, and as boring by others, which isn’t entirely unreasonable. As we’ve already seen on this page, some people simply won’t see the big deal about an hour-long album that never seems to change speed. That said, if you’re looking for something different, something nuanced, something that’s heavy but not in the traditional “metal” manner, you can do a lot worse than Panopticon. This one is a must for the adventurous rivothead.