Coheed and Cambria, one of the biggest neo-progressive-rock bands around, gets a lot of credit for linking its entire oeuvre (five albums and counting) into one, long, science-fiction narrative—one that’s spilled over into a novel and even a series of comic books. But in a sense, the recently defunct and far less marketable post-metal band Isis did a similar thing. Only without the spaceships, energy beams, pop hooks, and big hair.
A contemporary of Coheed’s, Isis crawled out of Boston’s hardcore scene in the late ‘90s, but swiftly evolved into something way more daring and experimental. Not to mention creepy. The band’s 1998 debut, a four-song EP called Mosquito Control, was a mini-concept-album about a race of extraterrestrial (or maybe extradimentional?) insects that take over the bodies, minds, and souls of the human race. Two years later, the group’s first full-length, Celestial, expanded that storyline a little then went off on a tangential narrative about mysterious towers, black holes, and digitized minds.
Isis’ music is at least as unsettling as its lyrics—a grinding, droning, tooth-loosening mix of Neurosis-esque sludge layered with samples and synthesizers. The faint of heart (and stomach) certainly won’t dig it, but Isis did refine and tighten its nightmarish aural assault over the years, culminating in the band’s 2009 swansong, Wavering Radiant. The disc kicks off with “Hall of the Dead,” a nearly eight-minute epic that evokes the ominous, apocalyptic dread of Isis’ early work—only with a sharper, more melodic, and coldly calculated edge.
“Hall of the Dead,” though, is more than just a heavy, hypnotically brutal song. Frontman Aaron Turner uses noise and paints a grim portrait that leans more toward fantasy than science fiction: “The great stone walls / Rise above our heads / Cold and sad / Pale light, a dusty veil,” he growls like a warrior grown hoarse from the cries of battle “Here we stand among the others / The living among the dead.” Then the tableau becomes clearer: He and his fellow fighter are both soldiers in—or rather, the sole survivors of—any army that’s laid siege to some horrific, impenetrable edifice. Bravely, or perhaps insanely, they’re tunneling through the corpses of their fallen comrades in order to sneak away and live to fight another day: “Push forward / Lifeless bodies swept aside / They are on us / Cast a net of armor / Over our heads / Hide our life / Lest it be lifted from us / We must leave this place of deathly decay / Don’t look back / Press on.”
Granted, it’s a bit of stretch to say that there’s any intentional, linear cohesion to Isis’ body of work, at least lyric-wise. But now that the band is kaput, their catalog is definitely bracketed by these great bookends—one SF, the other fantasy—that also happen to parallel the group’s 12-year progression from mechanistic and metallic to atmospheric and organic. And yet, they did so without falling back on sword-and-sorcery-heavy-metal cliché (not that there’s anything wrong with that—rest in peace, Ronnie James Dio, and rest assured that Frequency Rotation will be catching up with your fantasy-metal legacy at some point in the future).
Isis announced its breakup in May of this year, which was both lamentable and understandable. After battling it out in the underground for twelve years and influencing untold numbers of bands, they’d kind of hit a glass ceiling (despite the patronage of Tool, who took Isis on tour with them in 2006 and whose guitarist Adam Jones makes a guest appearance on “Hall of the Dead”). They did release a posthumous EP last month—a split with grunge godfathers the Melvins—but that’s probably more or less the end of Isis’ storyline. Which is too bad. They were always too subtle and cryptically poetic to write about spaceships and energy beams, but they did the SF and fantasy genres justice by the simple fact of not treating them—or themselves—as cartoons.
(Credit where credit is due: The above photos of Isis were taken during the band’s final tour by ace rock photographer Mark Dawursk. Check out more of his stuff at www.markphoto.net.)
Jason Heller contributes regularly to The A.V. Club; is writing a guide to piracy for Quirk Books; and has had the privilege of seeing Isis in concert three times (which is still about ten times too few).