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Isis’s “Oceanic” Turns 15

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Fifteen years ago, Isis released Oceanic, one of the most significant records in modern heavy music history. The band would go on to achieve heavier and richer explorations of their Tool-inspired post-rock workouts on Panopticon in 2004. Then, following their proggy muses, they made denser and more lush work on In the Absence of Truth (2006) and ultimately found greater alchemical balance of these elements on their finale, Wavering Radiant (2009). It was painful but not a mystery that they chose to end when they did; with Wavering Radiant, Isis had fused each piece together into a firm and fitting functional whole. There was nowhere left to go but the same ground. Oceanic is the locus point, the moment the solution to the puzzle became clear. The moment the sound was born.

What is most obvious about the record is its pervasiveness. It is one of the few transcendental records: it can be found cited by bands of all genres among albums of all other kinds of genres. Publications such as Pitchfork, FACT, and Decibel rarely agree on much; that they all agree on this album’s influence and quality is significant. Critical warmth toward their later albums wavers depending on the critical rubric. So what makes Oceanic so different?

It could be that Oceanic steadfastly seems uninterested in even being a hardcore or metal record. Harsh, barked vocals and distorted guitars are both present, but Isis is just as likely to immerse the listener in cascading waves of ambiance, with three guitars and a bass building not walls of sound but labyrinths of cryptic, repeating components. It is a compositional strategy of cyclical tension and release that aligns Isis more with Fugazi, 1980s King Crimson, or Wire. The reference to punk and to hardcore is there, but the results are substantially different, more abstract. Yet, Oceanic is too eventful, too riff-oriented at moments to align with those genres.

The second point of comparison might be krautrock. This would just as well explain Oceanic’s near-universal legibility; while Isis’ later records sink into moody atmospherics and intense Bruford-inspired rhythmic collages, Oceanic decides instead to groove. The way “into” the record is not through guitars (the most obvious entry point for most metal records), nor is it the vocals. Instead, the path originates from Aaron Harris’s drumming: the way it’s syncopated against the riffs being played, locked-in with bassist Jeff Caxide, to result in something somewhat funky. Oceanic is a propulsive record, one as in-touch with the body (and making the musical rhythm/body connection) as it is to discrete and eventful songwriting.

This is a trait Oceanic shares with krautrock and not with post-rock, the genre it most often gets associated with. Post-rock, at least as popularly defined, chooses “long and dramatic” over “short and fast.” Songs crescendo and swell and crash and ebb. Isis has components of this, but their songs are still far too rhythmically aware and focused for this comparison to go very far. Post-rock spawned wonderful albums (and still does), but it was never really known as the most rhythmically-oriented music. In fact, quite the opposite: its crescendos and swells and deliberate near-aimlessness is precisely from where the term arose, a supposed transcendence of the formalities and traditional shapes of rock music.

Krautrock, then, provides a better template, if you had to pick a subgenre. It has the complexities and rhythmic variation that accounts for the progressive rock influence of the album, enough of the rougher and wilder and more avant-garde abrasiveness that lends it a punk credibility, and the groove that drives the center of the record. But Oceanic clearly isn’t the same type of beast as, say, Tago Mago or Yeti. There are, at times, inflections and production that seem rooted in dub, especially the way the bass and guitars are treated. Take, for instance, the opening riff of “The Other,” or the opening of “Weight.” There is a springiness to the reverb that is atypical of both punk and metal; their often-clean guitars given body not by distortion or volume but by these production tricks.

While these attributes (dub, krautrock, post-rock, post-punk) are apparent in Isis’ music, they still don’t fully account for Oceanic. Something might be missing. Consider this: Isis did not start making this kind of music. Their beginnings, as heard on Mosquito Control and The Red Sea, were substantially more raw and punky. They were trapped somewhere between the hardcore of their native Boston and the soul-breaking doom metal of Birmingham, England. Like their fellow Bostonians in Converge and Cave-In, who took their hardcore roots and metal influences and forged a very mathy version of metalcore, Isis too sought to pursue a unique alchemical fusion. Their reference points, as apparent on Sawblade and (especially) on their debut album Celestial, were twofold: the trance-inducing post-everything metal of Neurosis and Birmingham’s other most-doomed sons, Godflesh.

On Celestial, the immediate forebear to Oceanic, the influence of Godflesh is most baldly apparent. It is, by all means, a competent record, but their worship of Justin Broadrick’s post-Napalm Death project was a bit too on-the-nose, minimalist, mechanized doom metal stretching out at times for almost ten minutes. The band even made this connection explicit by covering “Streetcleaner” early in their career, and then tapping Broadrick for a remix on their SGNL>05 EP. The “tension and release” element that would come to typify Isis and, in time, all of post-metal, hadn’t yet been found. They were still interested in being heavy, in retaining that clear connection to doom, but the pieces, however promising, didn’t quite fit.

The closest comparison for Isis for a long while was sludge metal, itself a combination of hardcore punk and doom metal. Isis came to be called, at least at first, an “atmospheric sludge metal” band. This seemed to cover all the angles: the doominess, the downtuned guitars, the barked abrasive vocals, the simplicity of their riffs, as well as the fixations on noise and ambiance and cohesion.

What makes Oceanic so noteworthy is it was the album that broke this classification apart. The phrase still fit, and tracing their ideas to Neurosis and Godflesh made those odd inflections from dub and krautrock and post-punk and progressive rock begin to make sense, but what room was there for those things in something like “atmospheric sludge metal?” Who wanted a name so unwieldy? Oceanic’s sound, clearly tied to things from before but so different, so unique in its alchemical cohesion, demanded something new. Post-metal was born.

The record was recorded live in its entirety near the end of Isis’ career. They played at All Tomorrow’s Parties, a now-defunct music festival named after a William Gibson novel that specialized in music from the more experimental, punky, and extreme side of things. The festival hosted groups as disparate as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Animal Collective, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, and Autechre. They would often tap bands to play LPs of theirs in full for sub-events called Don’t Look Back; if anyone were to point to a locus for the decade-long trend for bands to trot out anniversary tours where they play classic records, the blame or exaltation would lay most squarely at ATP’s feet. It was for one of these Don’t Look Back classic album live playthroughs that Isis was tapped to play Oceanic in its entirety, a recording of which was eventually released as Live V.

The results are a fascinating insight into what the band saw in these songs, and saw fit to focus on when performing them in full four years after releasing them. Isis was in the midst of touring In the Absence of Truth, the album most indebted to fusion and progressive-style rhythmic tensions and interplay. Distortion for the band was sparse then, harsh vocals even sparser. Aaron Turner was exploring clear singing and the band was looking into letting the work show a bit more, obscuring it less behind scalding waves of glorious and glorifying distortion.

The Live V performance confirms the rhythmic pulse that is the center of these tunes. Almost like a great funk or afrobeat performance, Isis is able to twist and turn relatively simple guitar figures one over the other by virtue of how tightly they interlock rhythmically, how they bounce and spring in syncopation against one another. It is a performance that swings in a way reminiscent of Black Sabbath, a move which few metal bands, especially those influenced by hardcore, seemed to indulge in. The clearer sound reveals as well just how lush and melodically/harmonically rich these songs are. They are not terribly complex, mostly revolving around the same two-chord vamp and cyclical resolution, taking individual shape more in how they are rhythmically enunciated rather than melodically constructed. There is variance, enough to note the change of one song to the next, but again the heart is in how simple figures auto-elaborate when left alone long enough, when rhythmically empowered and expanded, when paired and decoupled from juxtapositional ideas.

Oceanic didn’t construct something totally new ab nihilo so much as it assembled pieces that had been present in hardcore and heavy metal in a way that opened a door. The wave of imitators that followed near-immediately confirm this; Oceanic tapped into something latent, something that had been pondered over and desired for some time. Metal, punk, rock, hip-hop, trance, folk music, minimalism, and dub are all rhythmic music — body music — but finding fitting and fulfilling fusions of those elements has proven elusive and frustrating over the years. Oceanic was at a time not only when a band got it right, but did so in a way that seemed to point the way forward for bands and albums to come.

Estimating what would be lost if we had no Oceanic, nor the rest of Isis’ groundbreaking and deeply-beloved discography would be impossible. Bands such as Rosetta and Mouth of the Architect may never have existed. Justin Broadrick’s later work as Jesu would almost certainly have a different shape. The cultural presence post-metal gained in the wake of Oceanic laid the ground for other fusions of post-rock, shoegazing and extreme music, a mode that spans from the avant-garde metal of Pyramids to the blackgaze works of bands such as Lantlos and Amesoeurs. Oceanic, then, becomes just as nebulous a seed as it is a fruit. We can know that post-metal as we know it began here and not at Isis’ influences, that this was the official start of something, as clear and obvious a beginning as In the Court of the Crimson King or Black Sabbath was for progressive or heavy metal.

What matters more is that, all these years later, the songs still hold up. The record plays as effortlessly and untouched by time today as it did in 2002; as a complete work, it remains one of the most viscerally and consistently compelling in modern metal. They explored these same territories more in-depth later in their career, and would return to this very special balance by its end; their follow-up and satellite bands would continue the legacy of Isis and pair its thoughts in permutation against other genres, like noise, black metal, more abrasive forms of doom, and abstract music. But Oceanic is where it started. This, more so than Celestial, was the birth of Isis. For this, 15 years on, we are grateful.

—Langdon Hickman

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