When people mention "heavy metal," I still kneejerk and jump back to ultra-specific childhood associations: The Bon Jovi/Mötley Crüe diptych in my sister's purple room, watching "Headbangers Ball" with a pack of Party Mix and decorating my first shiny, black, mall-bought guitar with Slayer stickers, the trashy Maiden fans in my neighborhood with their toothpick legs, seeing pre-suck-ass Metallica in a mid-sized club with a friend of mine who wore a fake wig so he could feel more the part. These memories are just the tip of the Viking's iceberg; the stuff has leaked into my adulthood, especially via first-generation Norwegian black metal, Mastodon, High On Fire, the Polish rockers who ran my borrowed van into a Los Angeles parking deck last spring, and-- mightiest of all-- the glorious slow-release sprawl of Isis.
An odd monster, the Boston quintet has toured with Ipecac rap artist Dälek; had their music tweaked on a series of 12-inches by (among others) label head Mike Patton, Godflesh's Justin Broadrick, Fennesz, Thomas Koner, and Khanate's James Plotkin; and have played both Mogwai's stage at 2004's All Tomorrow's Parties in East Sussex, England, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. They're not your mulletted uncle's bar band. Their album Oceanic was all dark grandeur and waterlogged heaviness, and those qualities define the seven tracks on their follow up Panopticon. Even more epic and swirling than Oceanic, Isis's third full-length combines their velvety, slow avant-metal with Godspeed marathons and stately Ride-style shoegazing.
Panopticon shares the crystalline production Matt Bayles (Mastodon, Pearl Jam) leant to Oceanic-- the drums and vocals are submerged, the riffs intricately monolithic-- but unlike on earlier efforts, the spare electronics are more seamlessly woven with the other instruments. A stronger record than its predecessor, Panopticon pummels but harnesses its sounds to a well-honed, diaphanous template.
In the grand spirit of over-the-top metal, Isis named the album after Michel Foucault's take on of Jeremy Bentham's concept of the panopticon; the tracks are thematically connected via Foucault's Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Because the lyrics are submerged in the mix they're fairly impenetrable, but Isis quote heavily from the French philosopher in the liner notes to make sure listeners don't think they chose the title at random: "The Panopticon is a machine for disassociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen." (See also: The satellite spy cam photos decorating the album.) Considering the light/dark of the Patriot Act's ubiquitous surveillance, Panopticon feels more relevant than the science fiction of Queensryche's Operation: Mindcrime.
Isis's instrumentation also evokes a sense of creeping voyeurism. Astute track placement adds to the slowly building tidal, trance-like rush: individual pieces blend over and flood to the next. With a shadowy sense of repetition-- comparisons to Neurosis and the Melvins make sense-- the shortest track is 6:47 and the longest just under 10 minutes. "Backlit" starts with a delicate intro and stuck-in-the-well melodies before ultimately dam-breaking with gruff whirlpools; the distortion then ducks for cover, allowing a slow, clear bass line, percussion, and cascading arpeggios to bubble to the surface. Such complex dynamics overtake each new wave.
I remember in high school when a scruffy English teacher told me the word "awesome" should be saved for snow-capped mountain peaks not an AC/DC concert. I still don't agree with his Bob Ross-like language mangling-- both "awesome" and the equally 80s-rooted colloquilism "triumphant" are apt descriptions of Panopticon's intricacies. Plus, not to rain on Sir Shakespeare's parade: I grew up in swampy, dank New Jersey and have always preferred the angularity of flat, burnt-out fields to the obviousness of your purple mountains majesty. But for fans of such old-school sublime, Isis connect these overstated zero-oxygen heights with sludgy, brackish small-town waters, creating stellar classical music for kids with bad teenage mustaches-- and those of us who empathize with them.