Covert Concepts

Inside the intellectual mystery metal of Isis

In the theoretical "school of rock," Isis front man Aaron Turner would be the kid at the head of the class who has an eloquent answer for every question and writes the essays that the teacher always reads aloud to the rest of the class.

Or maybe he'd be the too-smart-for-school kid who'd rather read the works of French philosophers under his desk than pay attention to the teacher's lessons. Either way, Turner and Isis stand apart from the current class of commercial metal acts. The band's music, described as everything from "avant-garde rock" and "post-metal" to "experimental" and "prog-metal," really defies set definitions. One thing it's notis "marketable."

With mostly instrumental songs that stretch well past the six-minute mark, and a discography that includes five pseudo-concept albums (the latest being In the Absence of Truth, released last October on Mike Patton's Ipecac Recordings label), the members of Isis — guitarist/vocalist Turner, drummer Aaron Harris, bassist Jeff Caxide, guitarist Michael Gallagher, and guitar/electronics whiz Bryant Clifford Meyer — know their music is far from radio-friendly. And that's just the way they like it.

Isis: It's all in their heads.
Robin Laananen
Isis: It's all in their heads.

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"A lot of people think there's an oversaturation of really commercial, empty music being made solely for the purpose of entertainment, with no real substance or content behind it," Turner says. "For every action, there's a reaction."

And the reaction for Isis has been an expanding fan base that includes followers of other progressive bands such as Tool (with whom Isis toured last year), Neurosis, The Melvins, and Godflesh. Formed in Boston in late 1997, Isis relocated to Los Angeles in 2003, on the heels of its acclaimed album Oceanic. The following year, Revolvermagazine named Isis the 12th-heaviest band of all time, and people such as Tool bassist Justin Chancellor and Godflesh founder Justin Broadrick came calling to collaborate.

"We never imagined that Isis would become as successful or as popular as it has," Turner says. "Not that we're a platinum-selling act, by any means, but we never really expected to make it that far out of our rehearsal space. I'm just grateful that there are people out there who are willing to invest the time and effort it takes to really appreciate what we do."

And what is it, exactly, that Isis does? One answer is that Isis is a mental masseuse, a band that rubs intellectualism into the deep tissues of ever-morphing metal. In fact, out of all the labels thrown Isis' way, the band has openly embraced only one: "thinking-man's metal."

And Turner wants listeners to think more than ever before. He used to try to explain the concepts behind Isis' albums. 2002's Oceanic tells the story of a man who falls in love with a woman, then discovers she's been carrying on a long-term, incestuous relationship with her brother and dives off a cliff to his death. 2004's Panopticon is a politically charged album that uses philosopher Michel Foucault's idea of the Panopticon — a prison system in which one guard can view all prisoners from one central tower — to relay the idea of surveillance and subversive government activities that prey upon the people.

But Turner's not talking about the concept behind In the Absence of Truth. "Through explaining the last two albums time and time again, I just started to become weary of the topic, and I started to feel like I was losing my connection to the music and the lyrics simply from having repeated it so many times," Turner says. "And for me, personally, it's really important to maintain that connection as much as possible.

"I feel there's a lot of emphasis these days placed on explaining everything in such a fashion that there's really nothing left for the listener or reader to explore themselves. It's all spelled out," Turner continues. "So it's interesting to leave some of that stuff open-ended so they have do to a little bit of legwork themselves."

While Isis is keeping its latest concept under wraps, there are some obvious symbols and themes that recur throughout the band's albums: the mosquito, the control tower, water, and, most prominent, the figure of the powerful female. Even the band's name is taken from an ancient-Egyptian mother goddess.

Turner says he's not sure that there's an "overtly feminine theme" going on, but he's not afraid to admit he's in touch with his softer side. "I just think it's interesting to include that as part of what we do, simply because metal, especially, is considered to be this very male-oriented, testosterone-driven art form, and I feel like it's important to recognize the other side of our nature," Turner says.

"As manly as we might or might not be, we have to acknowledge that there is a feminine part of our persona, and that the world isn't made up of absolutes. To achieve balance, you have to recognize every facet of yourself and everyone else around you."

This dichotomy is audible in Isis' music, as well. While Turner's (usually unintelligible) vocals often take on a guttural, death-metal growl that rumbles and roars over spiraling guitars and crashing cymbals, there are also many soft, soothing soundscapes in the songs.

"I feel like our music has a much more gentle, feminine side to it, as well as the more primal, animalistic, male-testosterone trip," Turner says. "I guess it's partially about achieving and maintaining some level of balance."

The most overt reference to a female character on Isis' latest disc is the track "Dulcinea." The fictional obsession of Don Quixote, Dulcinea is a homely peasant woman elevated to the role of the feminine ideal by what Turner calls "Quixote's dementia."

"That is just toying with the idea of perception, and the very thin line between illusion and reality," Turner says.

And what about the album art Turner created, which resembles a bunch of bandages coming unraveled? "The drawings themselves are somewhat representational, in that you can see it's some sort of gauze or similar material, but it doesn't necessarily indicate one specific object or another. I think that's sort of at the heart of what I was writing about," Turner says. "And also, there's a progression of ideas from this very tightly bound, opaque mass into something that eventually starts to split up and open up and evolve into nothingness."

In further trying to uncover the concept behind In the Absence of Truth, listeners will have to explore more of Turner's admitted influences, which include Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Jeremy Bentham, and the philosophies of Islamic cult leader Hassan-I Sabbah (the album takes its title from a quote often attributed to Sabbah: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted").

Turner sidesteps an inquiry into how this quote relates to the album's concept. "I'll just say that much of working on this record, for me, was about the power and nature of perception, and the ways in which it affects our behavior and the way we see the world," he says. "I'll just leave it at that, and people can draw their own conclusions."

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Phil
Phil

Isis rocks.

 
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