Isis w/Mogwai, Cobra High
Thurs Sept 25, Showbox, 8 pm, $13 adv/$15 DOS.
Aaron Turner is one of heavy music's most efficient multitaskers. He plays in three bands, runs a record label, releases solo albums under the moniker House of Low Culture, and is a hyperproductive graphic artist who's designed some of the coolest album art in recent years.
At shows, he's often found behind the merch table in between sets, peddling CDs from his Hydra Head label and its subsidiaries, Tortuga and Double H Noise Industries. On the phone, he fields mundane questions in a relaxed, polite manner that puts even a perpetually nervous, stumbling interviewer like yours truly at ease.
"Good for him," you may be thinking--but the point is, this is not the personality profile you'd expect from the guy who screams his lungs out all over his band Isis' records. If you've heard 'em, you'll remember the sound of Turner's vocals--a gut- purging roar that's equal parts dread, frustration, rage, and sorrow. Turner offers one simple explanation for his vocal style: "We're so fuckin' loud, I have to scream to hear myself," he explains. "And I don't really mind that, necessarily, but it does make something like more delicate singing a harder thing to accomplish."
Yes, Isis are loud, but they're much more than that. While their sound is most obviously rooted in the lineage of slow-and-sludgy bands like Neurosis, the Melvins, and Godflesh, their records encompass a whole range of sounds: mournful, spaced-out guitar interludes, bits of droning feedback and ambient electronic noise, and, on their last album, Oceanic (Ipecac), even a bit of honest-to-goodness melodic singing (courtesy of guest vocalist Maria Christopher).
The poll-topping (if you read Terrorizer, that is) Oceanic, released last year, has so far turned out to be the band's breakthrough album. Deservedly, it has brought them new acclaim and attention outside of the close-knit underground hardcore-metal scene that spawned them--a scene that Turner's Hydra Head, in turn, actually helped foster. The influential label, which Turner still considers his main "day job," helped define the late-'90s/early-'00s "noisecore" explosion, releasing albums by abrasive hardcore-metal acts such as Converge, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Keelhaul, Coalesce, and Botch. These bands share (or shared, in the case of the defunct Coalesce and Botch) a tendency for complex songwriting and fast-paced, math-intensive assaults that Turner's band has, ironically, avoided since day one.
"Yeah, we're sort of the antithesis of that. We're not virtuoso players by any means," Turner admits. Still, he maintains that while "there's a certain simplicity to our sound, if you really listen closely, you realize that everything is there for a reason, and that the actual interaction between the instruments is fairly complex. Especially with the guitars--we're not constantly doubling each other and it's not like everybody's playing the same riff together."
One of Isis' biggest strengths is their ability to take a seemingly basic set of riffs and gradually embellish them, wringing gargantuan amounts of tension and drama out in the process. Their sense of pacing and dynamics, which goes well beyond the Nirvana school of "quiet-loud-quiet" juxtapositions, has a lot to do with this, but it still takes a lot of hard work to come up with this finished product, as Turner explains: "Every time we do an album, the order of the tracks and the dynamic flow of the thing from beginning to end is a big focus for us.... I wouldn't say that we're perfectionists, but we definitely like to take our time. We're very meticulous about each and every part of every song."
The meticulousness pays off, with Isis recordings such as Oceanic, Celestial (Escape Artist), and The Red Sea (Second Nature) delivering the sort of epic sweep and surging heaviness implied by their titles. Isis are even better live, especially now that they've graduated from playing low-on-the-bill sets on metal package tours, where they'd be herded on- and offstage in a half-hour--barely enough time to play three songs at their pace.
"I think that everybody in the band is pretty physically and emotionally exhausted after a set, just 'cause that's the time when we really get to vent," Turner says of the pleasurably draining Isis concert experience. "We really try to play our hardest to give the people who are watching it some pure entertainment."