With 2002’s release of Oceanic, I knew this band was headed for something really amazing, if that wasn’t it already. The way they had evolved from their previous albums kind of foreshadowed what their next album may bring. This album is significantly softer than previous releases, but I assure you it is still metal. You may have noticed Oceanic started this trend, with a little more clean vocals, some clean instrumental parts in the songs, and overall less total raw hardcore chaotic guitar madness. Panopticon continues with even more clean vocals as before. The clean vocals are rough and usually not so harmonious (but they have improved a lot since Oceanic), but they’re best that way. And Isis’ vocals are usually “behind” the music instead of “in front” of it, focusing more on the music. If you have Oceanic already, you probably know what I mean. Most of the album, like Oceanic, is instrumental (I’d say about three-fourths). This however has a lot more progressive, complex, unpredictable song structures, showcasing the band’s pure evolution and intense depth. Even though the guitars are generally not as heavy, or heavy for as long, they have so much more depth and intricacy. There are much more post-rock like clean instrumental passages, for a sort of post-metal sound.
This vast masterpiece kicks off with “So Did We,” which may be a candidate for one of my top 25 or 50 songs ever (Not that I keep track). It is probably the best new song I’ve heard this year, and personally my favorite Isis song so far. It reminds you that Isis is still metal by starting off with a pounding heavy riff and sudden hardcore-style vocals. This continues for a very short time until the heaviness abruptly stops and makes way for one of the best instrumental passages Isis have created. After that, it gets heavier again with some pretty good clean vocals. Then for five more minutes it is nothing but instrumental, it keeps on changing and shifting and evolving… couldn’t be better. When you finally get to the end of this song, it sounds absolutely nothing like what it did when it started, which is how music should be.
“Backlit” starts off very melodic and much different from anything Isis have done, and continues on that way; it’s a nice new direction for the band. There are a lot of clean vocals here that actually sound good and melodic, including a part where he keeps switching between hardcore and clean (probably the best part of the song). This song continues on with many instrumental parts with some exceptional melodies and the song ends with a bombardment of heaviness.
“In Fiction” starts off very calmly, kind of similarly to “Weight” on Oceanic. It gradually adds rhythm and layers, and doesn’t have any vocals for the first 4 minutes. Then it starts coming alive with the addition of some clean vocals and keeps progressing amazingly. A very solid song. It cleverly shifts right into “Wills Dissolve” which also starts off calmly with a somewhat pensive and eerie feeling, then a very haunting, clean melody surfaces – also a very different direction for the band. Again, the song steadily unfolds until it has a full sound with vocals, and there are some pretty good, straightforward (for a change) clean vocals here.
Again, the previous song switches to the next behind your back (a feature that always makes albums more epic, in my opinion). “Syndic Calls” is a very well-constructed song; the beginning of it just has that certain Isis vibe that I find once in a while. There is a small section with vocals and then a quite interesting instrumental part. When this song is almost over, there is a small amount of clean vocals over heavy guitars that come in at the perfect time to finish up the song. The buildup to this part is just magnificent. I have to say these are some of the most powerful of Aaron Turner’s clean vocals and probably the best he has done, even though it only lasts like 30 seconds. This particular song definitely goes by quickly, it definitely doesn’t seem like its 9 and a half minutes.
“Altered Course” is an 10-minute instrumental which features Justin Chancellor from Tool on bass guitar. This song took a very, very long time to grow on me. I was very unimpressed by it at first. It seemed very random and directionless, but now i can sense the progression and intricate structure behind the song. There are some sweet riffs at the beginning, but the song slowly gets more ambient towards the end and fades out. Some may think it just drones on too long with very little change but I think it builds a great atmosphere. “Grinning Mouths” starts off suddenly and is another one without vocals for the first 4 minutes. The first 2 minutes or so are a heavy instrumental and then it turns softer with some great melodies. The riff that starts at around 4:45 continues on for the rest of the song, after a while the vocals are added, and this riff keeps getting heavier and faster until it collapses upon itself really ending the album with a bang.
I think fans of Tool who aren’t into much more obscure music yet would really enjoy Isis, this album especially. They have some similarities to Tool (and have a band member playing on this album) and are a few notches on the heavier side. I also think fans of Godspeed you Black Emperor, who are also into other metal, would really appreciate this album. If you’ve been a fan of Isis for a long time and said they have a lot of potential… this is where that potential has lead them. All the potential has been bundled up and released on this album. They have naturally evolved, most bands do, I think for the better. Now, for the big question: better than Oceanic? Well, it’s extremely hard to say. Some people love Oceanic and hate this. I haven’t really seen that situation reversed either. But a lot of people like both. Personally, I think Panopticon is a little better but it’s still hard to say at this point.