Upon hearing Isis’s cautious turn toward the accessible on its fourth album, it’s easy to understand the rationale behind it. After all, in the years following their 2002 breakthrough album Oceanic, which married the dense, primal, epic quality of Bay Area greats Neurosis with a more subdued element indebted to early ‘90s shoegaze bands, it opened the floodgates, as a wave of similarly inspired bands started to surface. Pelican, Cult of Luna, Rosetta, Minsk, Eyes of Fire, Mouth of the Architect, Intronaut, among many others, gave us their own interpretations of this sound, call it metalgaze, NeurIsis, post-metal, or art metal, with varying degrees of success, making it the second most ubiquitous American heavy metal subgenre, next to the hugely oversaturated metalcore scene. With so many like-minded bands on Isis’s heels, the band makes a nifty little Barry Sanders-style cut to the sidelines on In the Absence of Truth; nothing too severe, but effective enough to further separate these progenitors from the imitators, a welcome reminder that nobody makes this style of music quite as well as the five guys who helped pioneer the sound.
The differences between the new album and 2004’s heralded, not to mention lofty-minded concept album Panopticon are subtle, but exhibit a confidence and sense of purpose we had not yet heard from Isis in years past. It’s the sound of a band knowing how to execute the formula to near-perfection, each lengthy song teasing us, ebbing and flowing hypnotically, tantalizingly hinting at a huge crescendo of sonic pyrotechnics that doesn’t quite arrive in full. In other words, a comfortable tension.
Although In the Absence of Truth is not without the kind of aggressive, distorted moments that characterized the previous albums, the operative theme on the new record is clarity, as Isis draws from a wider range of musical influences than ever before, including the more adventurous sounds of 1970s era King Crimson and Pink Floyd, with vocalist/guitarist Aaron Turner singing almost exclusively, something he’d only hinted at on previous albums. Unlike a band such as the Mars Volta, who continues to lose its focus in a vainglorious attempt to sound “groundbreaking”, Isis remains remarkably disciplined, letting notes and chords sustain, allowing for some welcome breathing room during each lengthy composition.
That spaciousness is noticeable the instant the disc starts, as “Wrists of Kings” opens with airy drones, coming from either an E-bowed guitar or a keyboard, and Aaron Harris’s crisp-sounding tom-tom fills, followed by chiming piano and guitar notes, which steadily builds for three minutes, but instead of the expected inclusion of densely layered doom metal chords, the song shifts into a languid Floyd-like groove in its second movement, Turner singing vague, barely discernable lyrics in a clean singing voice, the guitar fills gentle and melodic. By the time we do hear distortion in the final two minutes, it has an understated, dignified air to it, Harris’s double-kick climax actually sounding gentler than what we’ve expected.
The superb “Not in Rivers, But in Drops” is even bolder, opening with a bass/percussion intro that sounds lifted from the Cure’s late ‘80s discography, the song shifting from wonky prog rock instrumental pieces to brooding power chords a la Tool, the mixed-down heavy guitars continuing to take a back seat to the more melodic guitar tracks and Harris’s drum work. Turner’s vocals are almost an afterthought on the trancelike “Over Root and Thorn”, dominated instead by the upper-register bass melodies of Jeff Caxide, while Caxide and Turner offset each other much better on the slightly more insistent “1,000 Shards”, Turner contributing some of his most charismatic lead vocals to date.
Although the six minute build-up to the big, distorted flourish is in danger of being worked to overkill by Isis, the times when the band does go all-out are invigorating and bone-rattling enough to make it excusable. “Dulcinea” is driven by a thunderous, Danny Carey-esque performance by Harris (who is clearly this disc’s biggest revelation) and is bolstered by Turner’s calculated, perfectly timed guttural screams, while the thrilling final 80 seconds of “Holy Tears” is all about the guitars, as Turner and Michael Gallagher tear into the album’s most headbang-inducing metal riff. Aggression and melody coalesce most impressively on the closing track “Garden of Light”, the light and dark, the heavy and mellow all alternating seamlessly, the band showing why they are the undisputed champions of the genre.
Quoting the last words of 11th century Iranian missionary Hassan-i-Sabbah, the album bears the line, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” The great novelist William S. Burroughs drew great inspiration from that line, explaining his interpretation of it in a 1988 piece as being, “The literal realization of art…The artist aims for a miracle. The painter wills his pictures to move off the canvas with a separate life. Movement outside of the picture and one rip in the fabric is all it takes for pandemonium to break through.” In the Absence of Truth might not boldly tear through the fabric Burroughs speaks of, but one can sense, hearing this fine album, that it’s starting to give way.
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