No band lasts forever. For every long enduring band like the Rolling Stones or U2 or the Melvins, there are thousands of bands who break up everyday. Internal strife, economic hardships, or just the simple lack of desire can put the nail in the coffin for most bands. For ISIS, Los Angeles' critically lauded slow-burning, post-metal (whatever that means) outfit, 2010 was the year it all came to a close. Onstage at the Troubadour, the quintet unleashed thunderous noise and fragile quiet as they brought their 13 year career to an end.
The mood in the Troubadour was somber if not pensive as guys (the crowd only included 10% girls–most likely 100% girlfriends) lined up at the merch booth nlyto buy limited edition vinyl and apparel emblazoned with art by ISIS frontman, and Hydra Head Records owner, Aaron Turner. ISIS is metal to listen to on record: a song can stretch for 11 minutes of sonic tides that swell from a simple bass line to a tidal wave of distortion and Turner's blast furnace vocals. They're the imaginary soundtrack for Tarkovsky films, for long train rides across the Siberian tundra.
But to label ISIS as just a metal band, would be a disservice to their complex sound. The set opener “Threshold of Transformation,” from their 2009 critically praised Wavering Radiant, rained chugging guitar chords and drummer Aaron Harris' double bass kicks upon the audience. Jeff Caxide, one of the few bassists in heavy music worth a damn, alternates between delivering the heavy weight of his bass as structural support and leading the fray with the delay and chorus drenched “Not in Rivers, But In Drops.”
There is headbanging, but there is no circle pit or roundhouse kicks flying from the Nike's of hardcore kids. The men who make up this crowd would not be out of place in the art department of a magazine. There are no bros here. They look like mixed media sculptors and noise artists. Some play drums with their hands, mimicking the Harris' airy rhythms. They watch and rock back and forth, like Hasidic Jews in prayer, because in some odd way, this brutally heavy music feels spiritual. After all, droning chords, gradual buildups and ecstatic releases of energy, are hallmarks of worldwide religious music. The great Aum– the Hindu invocation that connects with the rhythms of the universe– which subtly rings in the sympathetic strings of a sitar, and in the circular rhythms of ISIS.
As part of a unified writhing organism, the audience watches with reverence as Turner bellows at the mic, the musculature of his neck contracting under his long beard. His voice sounds like a crowd, like a thousand voices shouting together, then he falls back from mic, wrestling his guitar as though it was in control of him, not the other way around.
On the stage, ISIS is performance art, a particular type of body art set to music, as the band, and especially Turner, give so much it hurts. The enraptured crowd watches as others have done while Chris Burden shot himself in the name of art or Marina Abramovic accepted and returned the gazes of thousands of eyes at MOMA. We watch these artists do what we can never do. They live in a rarefied world that obliterates the social norms we're too afraid to break.
Seldom do we see rock musicians as fine artists. When a musician picks up a Stradivarius we instantly recognize their artistic merit, but when it's a Stratocaster, that's another story. ISIS wears the “art” label proudly, eschewing the masculine anti-intellectualism that often goes with metal. They've even played at LACMA. The museum is the virtual frame that distinguishes art from the mundane, and even the high art establishment recognizes that ISIS is different.
As music becomes more disposable than ever before, that is, lacking monetary value in this download and delete culture of the internet, recorded songs lose their worth. But the value of the performance has increased tremendously. Countless shoddy reproductions in blog posts, Youtube videos, and Twitpics, only prove one thing: you had to be there. It's an experience that can and will never be repeated in the same way. Rock performance is a fine art; it is rare, nearly irreproducible.
For ISIS, a unique chemical reaction happens when these five musicians are on stage. Together they make something, an experience that changes a venue into an introspective space. Then when they leave the stage, it's gone. Like daydreaming on the clamorous subway, or in a crowd at a metro station, noise and silence becomes somewhat transcendent.
As the atmospheric keyboards, crisp guitars and driving drums of “Ghost Key” begin, the essential question of ISIS becomes clear. Why did they keep playing metal? They could easily cross over to the post rock world and possibly tap into a larger audience if Turner abstained from growling. They toured with Mogwai, they were handpicked to play their entire Oceanic album, for All Tomorrow's Parties. ISIS was divided between the indie and metal worlds. The indie world urged them to become softer, while metal demanded more intensity. Then Turner infused some lonesome, aching vocals over their heavy guitars and some metal fans cried foul.
At the Revolver's 'Golden Gods' awards in 2009, the band won Best Underground Metal Act, but received a handful of boos from the audience as they took the stage. It was a perfect testament to the polarizing nature, and paradox of the band. They are metal, but they aren't. They eschewed blastbeats for the space-filled drumming of Harris, and never ascribed to the aesthetics of metal guys who had something to prove. No leather jackets, no solos, no irony or posturing. They were outsiders in their own genre.
As they hit the glass ceiling of a new genre they founded, ISIS decided to call it quits. “ISIS has done everything we wanted to do, said everything we wanted to say,” they stated in a press release.
Thirteen years of touring and sacrificing without compromise can be taxing for the most resilient band. Playing rock music is really blue collar work married with artistic compulsion to create against all odds. We expect bands to be eternal. We take them for granted, and expect that if you wait long enough, sooner or later they will end up on your neighborhood. But this isn't true, all bands go away. But the best bands make a change in you.
As ISIS plays their black-matter heavy encore, the fittingly titled “The Beginning and the End,” the words of Turner–some of the only comments he made all night– ring truer, while the crowd of young men, this room of strangers, headbang together.
“We get caught up in our cell phones and how we look. But if only for this moment, we can be what we really are: vulnerable humans. Let this music in.”
Threshold of Transformation
Collapse and Crush
Not in Rivers, but in Drops
The Beginning and the End
So Did We