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Standing near the stage at CBGBs during a 2001 Isis show, a bald-headed fan waits for post-metal's heaviest hitters to launch into "Celestial." When the surging power chords are loosed from their bearings, the spectator loses his shit, contorting himself to every crushing downstroke and screaming in unison to Aaron Turner's unintelligible yells. The minutes go by and Isis is still locked into bottom-heavy groove, an ore freighter rising and falling with the waves of a November gale on the Great Lakes but never deviating off course. Eventually, the kid wears out and falls back into formation with the rest of those just standing and watching, some still awestruck by the power of "Celestial" and some seemingly bored by its single-minded purpose. The latter feeing is mutual.
Oceanic made me an Isis worshipper. It's everything metal should be. There are vast expanses of sound, immense riffs, glacier-like atmospheres and tortured screams. The band moves in unison like Helmet but is far more epic and heavy, with the biggest bottom end in the business. And yet, for all their heaven-scraping majesty and monstrous guitar glory, Isis comes off a little dull live on on Clearing The Eye, a DVD released in advance of Isis' new album. Part of the problem is the film quality.
The CBGB show is filmed poorly; some of it is shot from only one faraway angle, and "Collapse And Crush" suffers because of it. A steady, slow-moving force of nature, "Collapse And Crush" introduces more keyboard sounds and cleaner guitar textures that contrast with the rawness of the performance of "Celestial." Also included in the CBGB portion of Clearing The Eye is a churning version of "CFT." Clearly shot by an amateur, the band sometimes gets pushed out of the frame and there's a part where the camera threatens to turn upside down. Despite nightmarish keyboards, it is not Isis at its jaw-dropping best and the sound quality isn't exactly top-shelf either. The thing that's eye-opening about Clearing The Eye is how orchestrated their stage movements are. Heads are banged up and down to each pummeling sequence of chords. Other than that, there's hardly any movement, just knowing glances between members and very little in the way of crowd interaction.
What's fascinating about Clearing The Eye is that it shows how far Isis has come from those unpolished early days. The newer segments are stunning examples of Isis' barely harnessed rage and melodic subtleties. Though the cameras are still distant, the film quality is sharper and more colorful on "Full Set," shot in Australia in 2003, and "Grinning Mouths," from a 2005 show. Moments of otherworldly sound contrast with rampaging guitars, with the pretty six-string weavings of "Full Set" offering evidence of Isis' mastery of loud-soft dynamics and how unlike Isis is to every other band that practices them. "Backlit" is another bulldozing behemoth reminiscent of Isis' beginnings, but the professional filming makes it a better study of the Isis live experience today.
Perhaps the most brilliant show of the DVD, "Weight" opens Clearing The Eye with a icy drones and alien clouds of distortion. Shifting into more straight guitar work, Isis releases bell-like sounds of incredible clarity and beauty. Underneath it all, there's a forward-moving build-up of intensity that somehow seems to grow and remain in stasis at the same time. That push-pull tension is part of what makes Isis so compelling and such a sonic marvel.
Along with the concert portions, Clearing The Eye also has a psychologically disturbing video for "In Fiction" and a twenty-page booklet that points to how Turner plans to bring the aural portrait of Isis together with visual elements that show a conceptual whole picture of the band. That cinematic relationship was broken by Clearing The Eye, but no matter the faults, this DVD is a good, not great, companion to the Isis catalog. It shows a band that is progressing all the time and never settling for the lowest sonic denominator. SEE ALSO: www.sgnl05.com
SEE ALSO: www.ipecac.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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