Friday, February 09, 2007

She Was His Queen

Isis – In the Absence of Truth

But before the fantastic concert last week came a fantastic album. Not quite as fantastic as their previous record Panopticon but close to it nonetheless.

On this album Isis have lightened up and opened out a bit. There's still plenty of heaviness but while Oceanic and Panopticon were both mostly one oppressive dirgelike drone metal anthem after another, they've found room on In the Absence of Truth for ambience and more cheerful emotions. The production also seems a lot better, which is most appreciated. The drums on the earlier albums always sounded a little anaemic, despite the talent of the drummer, and it's good to hear them get the solidity and power they deserve this time around.

As is standard form with these guys there's a weighty concept behind the music. The lyrics are mostly incomprehensible and they haven't been posted on their website yet so it's pretty hard to tell exactly what it's all about beyond the hint given in the liner notes, that the title is derived from the quote “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”, attributed to the Muslim mystic Hassan-I Sabbah. This might seem a little opaque but Isis are old hands at rendering their concepts and narratives impenetrable enough so that it adds flavour to the music without getting too heavy handed.

The opening track 'Wrists of Kings' immediately takes a departure from Isis' earlier albums, as they ever so slowly build from a delicate, sad motif to a final thunderous climax over seven patient minutes. The next track 'Not in Rivers, but in Drops', is more conventional by their standards but still shows a lot more textural variation than their older stuff.

'Dulcinea' is their version of a soft, sad love song, at least until the end when it suddenly drops into a heavy, menacing riff before breaking out into a brilliant climax, complete with wailing lead guitar and an inspired rhythm part that drags even the most sedate listener out of their computer chair for an impromptu headbanging session.

'Over Root and Thorn' took a while to grow on me, partly because the opening few minutes of ambience, while great, is so quiet, and the rest of the song is a bit left field for these guys, featuring far more keyboards and clean vocals than usual. I've come to really like it though. I was disappointed when they didn't play it live.

'1000 Shards' and 'Holy Tears' are good songs in the vein of their older material. I'm almost perplexed listening to 'Holy Tears' now, it was so brilliant live but merely registers as 'good' to me when I hear the recorded version.

Those two tracks are separated by 'All Out of Time, All into Space', the first track to really grab me off this album and a truly beautiful piece of ambience.

'Firdous E. Bareen' is the most unusual track, taking electronic percussion and building a tribal rhythm up over the course of seven minutes, only introducing the barest essentials of a melody at the end. An unexpected twist for such a melody oriented band.

The last track, 'Garden of Light', starts very prettily, but goes downhill from there and is the only song on the album that doesn't really impress me. Not that it's not good to listen to, but it just doesn't live up to the high standard of the rest of the album.

As far as musicianship goes the band have done an excellent job moving their sound to the next level after Panopticon, introducing more varied textures and more dynamic moods. On the other hand the songwriting doesn't quite live up to the expectations generated by it's predecessor. There are no 'holy shit' moments like those scattered throughout the last album (most notably the climax of 'In Fiction'), and although every song is at the least very good, it simply doesn't achieve the constant level of total awesomeness that Panopticon achieved.

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