“It was self-deprecating, but it also exemplified what we wanted to do.” – Aaron Turner of Isis talking to the New York Times on the meaning of “Thinking Man’s Metal”

Thinking Man’s Metal. Post-metal. Metalgaze. Steel. They all mean the same thing. A genre combining post-rock and heavy metal, but trying at the same time to stay away from heavy metal conventions. Downtuned distorted guitars, heavy atmospherics, gradual evolution of song structure, and a minimal emphasis on vocals occupy the songs here on Isis’s 2004 album, “Panopticon”. It’s an album that knows when to play and speak slowly and quietly, and when to rock out hard and heavy, shouting and screaming loudly. In fact, Isis here knows how to do it very well. It’s a shame that Isis broke up last year in 2010, but what they managed to leave behind is plenty of albums that break the conventional approach of heavy metal. This album, out of all of them, is my personal favorite.

A panopticon, strangely enough, is a form of prison. A central observation tower surrounded by windowless cells, terrorizing prisoners with the fear of constant surveillance. This is the central theme of the album, and Isis manages to recreate that fear. The album starts out loudly with the track, “So Did We,” which has already managed to become one of my favorite songs of all-time. Downtuned guitars, slow but heavy drumming, and vocals screaming “Our skin worn thin, our bones exposed, life reduced to ticks” in a 6/4 time signature start it off. And then all of a sudden, the volume quiets to clean guitars and bass, playing melodic and minimalist inspired riffs. You rarely ever hear heavy metal like this, but here, the sound is dominant, gradually moving into an explosive chorus where the vocals are shouted in a clean manner (“From forest caves and azure skies, we crashed upon this earth. The years they passed and so did we, but, resistance would be brought.”), and the lead guitar is actually played clean with reverb rather than heavy metal’s usual screaming licks. Then, there is a sense of calm before the storm, where there is more clean guitar before distortion builds up into an explosive ending of power chords and atmospherics that ends the way it started. Overall, this is probably one of the strongest songs I’ve ever heard a metal album start out with, which is a good thing.

“Backlit” starts out softly with very melodic and uplifting licks alongside a light beat, which slowly rises up over time to an explosive climax containing clean shouted vocals and distorted guitars before dropping suddenly to a break of clean and distorted guitar licks, which suddenly lead to yet another climax that alternates between growled vocals and dissonant guitar and clean vocals and melodic guitar. If only most metal could sound like this. The song then turns yet again into a quiet section full of math rock complexity, building up with melodic guitar solos and then finally hitting a rhythmically complex guitar solo before going yet again into screamed metal before ending out suddenly. “In Fiction” starts slowly and cinematic-like, with clean, melancholic guitar solos over a light drum beat and distant chorused guitar chords. As post-metal usually does, the song builds up slowly over time, becoming more and more layered and distorted, with some vocals entering in the middle of the song, and finally, at its climax, huge guitar power chords, harmonized vocals, and some great bass lines in the mix as well. The second climax also includes some memorable guitar lines that sound as though they should be played over an slow motion action sequence, or even just in a film trailer. A great track nevertheless.

“Wills Dissolve” contains ambient synth sounds at the beginning, alongside a melodic guitar and bass duet that sound closer to the sounds of Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Mogwai, as well as having sort of a feeling of uncertainty with its dissonant sounds at parts. The melodies around the 2 minute mark are also spectacular for as minimal as they are, and the metal hit at the 3 minute and 18 second mark is fabulous, along with the screamed vocals and melodic guitar melodies that occur near the end of the song. This track segues into “Syndic Calls”, which contains an ambient guitar loop before heading into more melodic guitar figures. The strange guitar effects make for a nice touch, and the muted rock rhythms in the middle of the song make for a great build-up into the climax. The break in the middle of the song contains some very nicely produced reverb guitar before building up in complexity and layers to the second climax, where clean vocals prevail and the drums and guitar hit as hard as metal music usually does.

“Altered Course”, which features Justin Chancellor of Tool on bass, and is the longest track on the album running almost 10 minutes exactly, starts out differently from the rest of the album, in that it begins directly with distorted guitar and heavy drums, along with a reverberated and distorted melodic guitar line seeping through the cracks of the song, before leading into a huge climax of loud drums and heavy guitar. The break contains a very interesting chord progression, in that the last chord sounds very off from the rest of the song, but obviously, it needs to be in order to create the creepy, unsettling mood that heavy metal usually has. The rest of the song consists on breaking down from the climax established at the beginning of the song, moving into ambient territories through keyboards, sound effects, and the like. A very different song from the rest of the album, but it works. The final song, “Grinning Mouths”, begins right away with heavy guitar and drums, along with the occasional strums of some clean and overdriven lead guitar, which lead into a nicely contrasting section of clean guitar and light drumming, which again build up near the 4 minute mark to create a huge wall of growled vocals, distorted guitar, and loud drumming, and afterwards, a complex section of both clean lead guitar and distorted rhythm guitar, moderately fast drumming, and some good ambience going on in between the cracks of the song. The second climax sounds very cinematic, and could easily be used in a trailer for an epic film of some sort. The song gets more complex as keyboards, muted heavy metal guitar, and extreme drum fills collide to create an even bigger climax before finally ending suddenly, and so the album ends.

Overall, “Panopticon” is one of the best examples of post-metal from the past decade. The contrast between clean and distorted guitar, clean and screamed vocals, minimalist melodies and complex rhythms, and quiet atmospheres and loud noisy climaxes can be found all throughout the album, as can a sense of fear and uncertainty, which goes along with the theme of the album quite well. The sound is very cinematic, and could almost be used in an epic film, that is, if it goes with the right scene. Isis spent a good deal of time polishing this album to make it sound unique from most of the heavy metal albums being released at the time, and in the end, it shows. Recommended listening for fans of heavy metal, minimalism, post-rock, progressive rock/metal, sludge, doom, etc.

Album: Panopticon

Artist: Isis

Genre: Post-metal/post-rock/heavy metal

Released in 2004 by Ipecac Recordings

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