You can tell that Isis aren’t a typical metal band because none of the band members have long hair except for the keyboardist (a keyboardist!), and instead of dropping Lovecraft references, they make concept albums about Foucault. But in a surprisingly high-profile and overground move (maybe not so surprising since the band just finished touring with Tool), the “post-metal” quintet have released a DVD that lets fans watch close to a score of live performances from the past five years (including a full 2005 show in Sydney) and one (1) honest-to-god music video.
Unfortunately, Isis fail to jump out of its underground ghetto with a DVD plagued by two fundamental problems, one specific and the other ontological. First, the DVD transfer quality is uniformly dire throughout Clearing the Eye, and second, Clearing the Eye does nothing to justify the continued existence of concert videos.
The DVD spotlights their debut album Celestial on five separate DVD tracks, though with the exception of “Glisten”, all of these songs were performed in 2001 and shot by an amateur cameraperson; as a result, viewers will have to be satisfied by either the songs or the performances because of poor, pixelated video quality. For instance, on “C.F.T.” (at CBGB’s on 3 June 2001), the song was shot from the crowd, poorly lit, poorly framed, and poorly held. The cameraperson zooms in on the band randomly, for which Isis actually apologize in the liner notes for the DVD, citing a possible “overdose of caffeine” to explain the bizarre cinematography.
Two of the other Celestial-era CBGB’s performances (“Celestial” and “Collapse and Crush, both performed on 26 August, if you’re keeping track) fare slightly better but remain nowhere near professional quality. Shot from one angle — stage left and from several feet above — the camera work is superior to “C.F.T.” but only because the camera is completely static. Otherwise, the picture quality is equally murky and out of focus. What’s more, the audio track for the August performances aren’t perfectly synced to the video, and the tape even skips on “Celestial”.
The other album that Clearing the Eye emphasizes is 2004’s Panopticon, represented mostly in a 2005 Sydney show that benefits from an actual film crew shooting the performance on multiple cameras, complete with tasteful dissolves from shot-to-shot. Even then, the video transfer to the DVD is visibly pixelated, especially during high-contrast shots that include a single, focused light source, though the roughness of the cut is somewhat mitigated by the charm of the long-shot camera shaking noticeably on every bass kick. Nevertheless, the rest of the video shortcomings masks the quality of the actual music, which generally ranges from unadventurously decent to muscular improvisation on tracks like “In Fiction” and “Grinning Mouths”. Aside from seeing vocalist / guitarist Aaron Turner sporting an Unknown Pleasures T-shirt, the highlight of the Sydney show is “The Beginning and the End”, a welcome relief from the gnarled death metal with mathy beats that naturally dominates (and homogenizes) the set, particularly when the song culminates with a sublime cascade of shoegazey, Fennesz-esque keyboards.
Unfortunately, musical thrills on the level of “The Beginning and the End” are few and far between on Clearing the Eye, partly because of the poor DVD presentation, but also because only three tracks from the band’s opus Oceanic appear on the DVD: the aforementioned “The Beginning and the End”, “From Sinking” (the encore of the Sydney concert), and a retooled version of the magnificent “Weight”, complete with two extra collaborators, one of whom played bongos — suffice it to say, not the most successful experiment in history. The slow-building immensity of the album version is entirely lacking on this particularly drawn out rendition of “Weight”, partly because of the bongos (which dilute the song’s drama), and also because of the less avoidable loss of the featured guest singer of “Weight”, Maria Christopher.
In addition to the live performances, Clearing the Eye includes the band’s first foray into the music video world with “In Fiction” (directed by Josh Graham). Shot through a faded out blue palette that simulates black-and-white, the video deploys a narrative mode similar to La Jetée, combining still images and full motion video to dramatize a woman being pursued by five shadowy men through an empty factory, all culminating in a cameo from the smoke monster from Lost to drive home the commentary on our omnipresent surveillance state.
The bonus features are rounded out by two galleries of candid photos shot on the band’s various tours. While a DVD slideshow of band photos isn’t an inherently riveting notion, they do reveal that despite the rigorous solemnity heard on the albums, Isis aren’t above simple merrymaking, as evidenced by their recreation of the album cover for Slint’s Spiderland set in the Blue Lagoon – clearly representative of their math rock / metal (math metal?) hybrid sound.
As is the case with all concert videos, Clearing the Eye doesn’t faithfully translate to DVD the experience of Isis live. But if you’re enticed by brief, behind-the-scenes looks into the band, or if the thought of bongos on “Weight” sounds like a good idea, then this document of Isis minutiae holds its value — otherwise, the musical content of Clearing the Eye is weighed down by the innate limitations of the concert video.