#TBT: ISIS'S Celestial Is a Sludgy, Beautiful, Raw Release
Welcome back to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. TBT number 39 features a lesser-appreciated work from a heavily influential, yet modern, group.
One note. One note and one octave is all it takes ISIS to create something disarming and never-before heard. While they're a band better known for their critically-beloved release Oceanic, their debut record is an under-appreciated and brilliantly fresh take on droning, sludgy, experimental metal. Thanks to avant-garde song structure and technical, subtly dissonant soundscaping, Celestial is purposeful and captivating from the first note to the last.
Release Date: April 2000
Record Label: Escape Artist, Hydra Head, Ipecac
Since their late 90's beginnings in Boston, Massachusetts, ISIS have drop-tuned their way into the upper echelons of essential metal listening. And yet, for newer fans, I feel they're more familiar with the band as the butt of a joke involving an East Asian terrorist organization than they are with the group's discography. In early 2000, ISIS recorded and dropped their freshman effort Celestial. Overall, the record feels like more of an experience than it does a mere collection of tracks. From the first track on, the album burns with intent. Check out the opening cut "Celestial (The Tower)":
And if you're inclined to check them out performing "Celestial" live (with an all-too enthusiastic crowd member), this video will suit your desire well:
Aside from that dude doin' his own thang (more power to you, metal brother), the initial feeling that hooks the casual listener is how ISIS does more with less. "Celestial (The Tower)" is immediately enthralling. Throughout the 10ish-minute track, the gradual build and dissipation of intensity is navigated with care. Letting the brass on the drum kit ring out, the steady evolution of a yelled vocal turned into a raging growl, the overwhelmingly fuzz-laden tone from the guitars to the simplicity of a clean channel all convey emotion. Because these changes are made to blend into one another, the extreme changes in intensity don't distract or even feel abrupt. You could call the effort weaving between the two atmospheres masterful.
In an article from RollingStone.com, guitarist/vocalist and founding ISIS member Aaron Turner says this of their musical pursuits, "Oceanic was the first record that we had written with what became the permanent lineup." He then goes on, "With Oceanic people felt more comfortable with expressing their ideas and working together. That was in a lot of ways, a point of solidification for us." Which means, that for recording and touring with Celestial, there was still a sense unease, or maybe withholding from the individuals within the group. Where that tension is expressed in Celestial is tough to pinpoint, but what most fans notice most is the shift in atmosphere and the stoic sonic makeover from their first record to their second. Celestial is still really good – but it does struggle to compete against their sophomore album which Rolling Stone placed on their "100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time" list – Oceanic.
I personally love both albums (that's what you get when you have good musicianship), but, Celestial brings a grotesque yet melodic yet huge chuggyness I just adore. To see what I mean, check out track "Glisten":
"Glisten" is beautiful, ugly, desperate, and freeing all at the same time. The vocal performance is really quite extraordinary on this track, and conveys so much of the depth of those feelings. Another favorite track of mine off the album is "Deconstructing Towers":
The middle 'break down' (which isn't a typical break down) feels something like a sick, twisted, tortured machine coming to sentience and deciding to exact revenge on those who hurt him. Or, you know, whatever comes to your mind when you hear such a purposefully decomposed track.
For the newbies who decide that they want to check out Celestial, or for the oldbies who wish to revisit it, I recommend taking a listen to the 2013 re-master. It still has a raw, unfinished quality to it but the levels are more flattering to the intentions of each instrument. If you're a fan of anything ISIS has put out, you should know that they are reforming for a one-time benefit show under the name Celestial. The show to is help the family of Cave In and Old Man Gloom bassist Caleb Scofield who tragically passed away in a car accident.
Even if you can't make it to LA to catch the band live, ISIS, Celestial, and their subsequent discography should be a part of your metal makeup, especially if you're a fan of post-metal, creativity, and artistry.