Saturday, December 1, 2007
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The thinking man's metal band, Isis' third proper album is political without being political, heavy without being overly heavy, tender while metal and extremely drawn out. At the intersection of post-rock and sludge metal comes “Panopticon,” equal parts MBV and Sabbath. And that's not even mentioing the word “literate,” which this album nearly defines, in metal terms.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Well, for one, Neurosis basically created this sort of sound years before “Panopticon” came out, so if you're going on “who did it first,” they get this title. Still, RS shows little love for metal on the list, basically only giving credence to Metallica, Sabbath (sort of, with only two records) and Zeppelin.
Best song: “Backlit” takes the Pixies' quietLOUDquiet thing to a metal edge, all while working in the postponed climax of a great Mogwai record. It's also Aaron Turner's best “sung” (as opposed to growled, though there is growling) song.
Worst song: This album works as a whole and there are no bad songs.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.
While heavy metal gets short shrift in the indie music press, literate metal is oftentimes lauded more than it sometimes should. I'm an example of that; I'm not much for the normal vikings and Hobbit nonsense, but give me Nietzsche and I'm sated.
As such, my love for Isis' “Panopticon” is clearly rooted in my love for two things, driving guitars and literate (some would call “Panopticon” pretentious) rock. It's full of the landmark metal downtuned and aggressive guitars all while carrying a lyrcal theme based on post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault's book “Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison” (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison).
The album cover itself is a shape of things to come. Acting as the ever watching eye, the aerial photograph of Los Angeles is a creepy foreshadowing of the Bush administration's wiretapping actions. The album's theme of surveillance by those in power over those without power is further exemplified in the title of the record (panopticon, a kind of prison wherein a single guard is back lit against prisoners he can see in a wheel-like structure) and the song titles reflect different portions of the book.
The atmosphere of the record is its driving force. While most metal – including other bands that are considered “post-metal” like Mastodon – is about instant gratification and rapid-fire pounding, “Panopticon's” songs are mostly structured almost like a suspense novel. Songs start slow and build slowly, climaxing in a slower-than-usual metal crescendo. “Syndic Calls” is nearly nothing at the start, solely a feedback-ish keyboard line that starts a small bass line and guitar bit. This continues for a full minute – the song is nearly 10 minutes long -- until Turner comes in with his singing (again, not growling), while the band comes in, quickly and pretty forcefully. The start and stop guitar three minutes in, and the lowering of the boom of full-on distortion soon thereafter hit the song into high gear.
The Pitchfork review uses the term “waterlogged” to describe the album's sound and that's about as fitting as it comes. The record drips of reverb and the drum lines evoke something of a rainstorm. The choruses come like a deluge and the band brings overwhelming fluidity to the record only seen in the tightest bands.
Because metal doesn't get any respect from mainstream music press (Sabbath and Metallica are really the only two metal bands on the list), it would be easy to prop Isis up, simply on the fact that this record is so literate. But, lyrically, it's sparse and powerful. Built on Aaron Turner's more able singing, the record's lyrics reflect, in mostly obtuse terminology, as in the album highlight, “Backlit.” “Always object/Never subject,” opens the song, referencing the feel of being under surveillance.
The whole album builds off this, largely on the back of Turner's voice. Certainly, the rest of the band can play – there are no Pelican drummer-type complaints here -- but Turner is the driving force here.
What makes “Panopticon” so great? Certainly, part of my love for it is my overwhelming love of the post-rock genre.
But, the album is evocative. Because music is the soundtrack to our lives, its greatest asset can be to evoke a feeling. “Panopticon” does that without anything overt about it; In fact, I imagine that a lot of people get a feeling not related to paranoia or being watched.
There's something inherently great about being able to do that. The greatest art suggests a world of different reactions from those who consume it. Not everyone feels the same way about Michelangelo's Pietá.
In a world of Hobbit/D&D nonsense (Maiden, etc.), bar-brawl thugging (Judas Priest, etc.) and high school philosophy (Metallica), a metal record based on a French structuralist philosopher is wonderful. It's evocative and smart and one of my favorite albums of all time.