Isis’ career-capping two-disc LP Temporal begins right where they left off: “Threshold of Transformation”, the concluding track from their fifth and final studio effort, Wavering Radiant. Much hullaballoo is made over Oceanic and Panopticon — their second and third studio LPs, respectively — and rightly so. They’re both classics, especially Panopticon, a titanic achievement still today. Yet despite Isis’ preference for slow evolution rather than drastic album-to-album change, there was something about Wavering Radiant that made it a fitting swan song. The core features of their style hadn’t fundamentally changed by the time the group called it quits, but it didn’t matter. Wavering Radiant is still, in this critic’s opinion, their strongest record, and the natural extension of Isis’ musical trajectory. It was certainly sad to see the band depart — post-metal only has a few excellent names to its credit (Russian Circles are easy choice for current top contender) — but there’s a value in ending a career after five almost equally great LPs. It’s not difficult at all to pick a winner between Celestial and Wavering Radiant.
Thus, using “Threshold of Transformation” as a lead-in is a wise way to segue into this collection, and for a moment it makes one forget the problems inherent within this type of release. The “B-sides and rarities” album is often groan-worthy, and with good reason: it’s easy to cash in on re-packaging a bunch of material that’s already been released. It’s very unlikely the case that labels or even bands themselves are looking out for the goodwill of fans who don’t want to spend their time scouring eBay for Japan-only issues. In a nice change of pace for these proceedings, however, eight of these 14 tracks haven’t been released in any format before, and the other six are so good their repeat inclusion isn’t redundant. The sludgy cover of Godflesh’s “Streetcleaner” stands in for Isis’ turn-of-the-millennium beginnings and “Pliable Foe,” one of the two cuts from the split made with the Melvins in 2010, is one of the few representations of their late-career material. Whether you thought Isis called it quits too early or that they ended right when they needed to, Temporal has significant appeal. This is anything but a money-grab; it’s as good as a parting gift that can be expected from these musicians.
The first disc comprises unreleased demos, including one song not found on any Isis album. That song, “Grey Divide”, is by far and away the highlight of Temporal, so much so that it warrants the purchase of the record by itself. A towering, 16-minute epic — admittedly something Isis is no stranger to — “Grey Divide” already has the markings of an Isis classic, even in its rudimentary demo state here. Best of all, it captures a melancholy mood that drapes over Temporal, a fitting title that’s unlikely to be lost on those who wish these guys were still performing. Even though five of the six demos on disc one are songs Isis fans are already familiar with, there’s a feeling that these very similar sounds are different, if only slightly so. This isn’t bad, of course and, in fact, Temporal is all the better for it. In harkening back to the beginning stages of these songs, including highlights like “Wills Dissolve” and “False Light”, a glimpse into the most unadulterated of the band’s songwriting is given, and it’s a marvel to behold how good they sound in the working stages. Aside from “Grey Divide”, the stand-out cut from this first disc is “Ghost Key” — here stripped of vocalist/guitarist Aaron Turner’s thunderous bellows — which is one of the most striking display of Isis’ instrumental prowess yet. Though Turner has cited Tool has cited an influence on the band’s music in the past, I’d venture to say that Isis do Tool better than Tool themselves.
The second disc compiles stuff that’s for the most part already been released. Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like a retread. Even as a fairly invested fan of Isis, I had never heard the two covers that open this disc, the aforementioned Godflesh track and a brilliant, bluesy take on Black Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom”. Isis’ emphasis on the low-end of the sonic range (the signature bass style of this group has been unsuccessfully mimicked by many) makes them ideal for paying homage to Sabbath, who are probably the earliest progenitors of the style Isis would come to refine.
If there’s one weak part of Temporal, it comes in the inclusion of two remixes taken from In the Absence of Truth: “Not in Rivers, but in Drops” (remixed by Melvins and Lustmord) and “Holy Tears” (remixed by Thomas Dimuzio). This type of post-metal doesn’t really lend itself to remixes. In the end, both of these tracks end up having some interesting ideas that are never formed in an engaging way. Rather than elevating the original song to something unique, these remixes will likely just leave one pining for the album editions.
The striking, gorgeous sleeve art for Temporal — an aerial shot of a metropolis at night, as if taken from a plane about to ascend into the clouds — is perhaps the best visual representation of its function. Far from an attempt to earn a quick buck (or a covert operation to fund the equally sad 2012 demise of Hydra Head, a label run by Turner), Temporal is about looking back in nostalgia, an activity that can still be fruitful even when a break-up happened not long ago. Isis have only been gone for three years (or two, if you count the Melvins split in 2010), but it doesn’t feel as if this is a forced exercise. If anything, the excellence of this release is a reminder of just how much of an impact Isis made with only five studio albums. If a group can end their career on terms like that, things undoubtedly have nowhere to go up from here as far as legacy goes.
Still, it’s not hard to be a little bit somber while listening to these fourteen lost and obscure tracks. As good as “Grey Divide” is at reminding us of Isis’ enormous talent, the true career summary can be found in the title track, one of the shortest pieces ever penned by these guys. The two minutes of “Temporal” are a stark reminder that it’s often the case that some of music’s best groups don’t stay with us for long, and sometimes the right time for a band to go isn’t when we want it to happen. There could be five equally brilliant Isis albums waiting in the musical aether somewhere, but we’ll never know what they are. For now, we have Temporal, and as far as last chapters go it’s, one hell of a final sentence.