In The Presence Of Truth: DiS meets Aaron Turner of Isis
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Isis’ fourth long-player, 2006’s In The Absence Of Truth (Ipecac), wasn’t quite what factions of their hardcore supporters were expecting. An album rooted far deeper in melodic territories (for all its occasional bursts of stunning bombast) than its immediate predecessor, 2004’s Panopticon (Ipecac), the Californian five-piece’s latest split opinion like no Isis record before it. Critics and fans alike were left forced to agree to disagree.
Q magazine, for example, could only award the record a forty per cent score, noting that it was too similar to their 2002 masterpiece Oceanic (Ipecac); this, though, smacks of the opinion of a critic that never even played the record. While Oceanic remains, in vocalist/guitarist Aaron Turner’s words, the band’s “quintessential album”, In The Absence Of Truth possesses strength enough to make it an essential purchase for the discerning post-rocker; the most-hardened of metal-heads, too, will find plenty to nod violently to. And it sounds totally different to Oceanic.
Whereas Oceanic rumbled and roared, In The Absence Of Truth rolls and ripples; while Panopticon’s dalliances with pronounced melody occasionally detracted from the songs on the band’s third set, its successor melds might with restraint near perfectly. Newfangled terms like ‘metalgaze’ were clumsily offered the band’s way in the record’s wake. DiS’s review rightly recognised that the band could not afford to remain still, content enough with their past accomplishments to repeat them in pattern; a risk though it was, for sure, In The Absence Of Truth has proved to be a success, and one that can’t be pigeonholed whatever made-up-on-the-spot genre is thrown at it. If you’re part of the minority still in disagreement, listen again.
2006 also saw the release of the band’s first DVD, Clearing The Eye (review). It captures the band – completed by Aaron Harris, Jeff Caxide, Cliff Meyer and Michael Gallagher – at a selection of shows, and focuses largely on material taken from their debut, 2001’s Celestial (Escape Artist). A collaboration with Aereogramme, part of the In The Fishtank series, was released in September, a month before Absence…. The year also saw Oceanic make number five on DiS’s Our 66, its list of the best albums of the last six years (i.e. DiS’s lifetime) – click here to refresh your memory.
DiS met Aaron Turner in north London at the beginning of winter; the sun was out but the air was chilled, and Turner spent the entire interview lying on a sofa, a zebra-print blanket protecting him from the old creeping in from an open balcony window. We quite obviously began by mentioning Oceanic’s placing in Our 66…
Oceanic has, quite clearly, held up well over the last four years, but I’m guessing it’s even older to you?
Yeah, it’s five or six years old to us.
Why do you think it’s so often seen as the Isis record to own?
I think, for a lot of people, it was their first experience of Isis, and at the point it was the highest-profile release we’d ever had. And also I think, again for a lot of people, that the album marked the point where we really became the band that we are now, I suppose. But, it does seem to me that we’ve brought in just as many new listeners with Panopticon (review), and it seems like that process will repeat itself yet again with this record.
But you must be pleased that Oceanic was, and continues to be, so revered?
Yes, of course. I think for the long-term fan it will end up being the band’s quintessential album, but I do hope that if people are getting into us now that they’ll listen to the new material first. I think it’s better to work backwards, rather than to go forwards from Oceanic, y’know? Because if you get really attached to a band sounding one way, then discover they’ve changed later in their career, it can be disappointing.
Which brings us neatly to In The Absence Of Truth: do you think the album was unfairly handled by some critics who weren’t able to recognise the progression the band has made?
Yes and no: at this point we’ve built up some expectations and a lot of people reviewing the record are already aware of us. I feel that some of those people now feel that our bag of tricks is empty, and that we haven’t expanded upon what we achieved on Oceanic. For me, that’s a little discouraging, but it’s also part of the reason why I don’t read too much of my own press. I feel like it’s a pollutant; I feel it distorts your own perspective of what you do.
Many reviewers picked up on the fact that, at times, Absence is mellower than past albums. Did that bother you? To me, the mellower moments only reinforce the heavier elements, of which there are many…
To me it’s surprising when I read ‘mellow’ as a detracting statement, especially when the same person, the reviewer, liked Panopticon, which featured more of those moments. Oceanic had more mellow moments, even! I mean, isn’t it obvious the trajectory we’re taking? I think there are many things that aren’t predictable on this album – things that I certainly wouldn’t have thought we’d be doing on this album – but at the same time our evolution, to me, seems pretty logical.
In other words, you’ve no desire at all to simply recycle the ideas of records past?
No! What do you want us to do, make the same record over and over? Do you like the band as we are? It seems to me that there are two types of Isis fan: those that wish we’d repeat the record they fell in love with, and those that love us for constantly changing and trying to do new things and for pushing into different territories with each release. You can’t take any of it personally, and you do become more thick-skinned as time goes on. To me, though, it’s odd: I wonder how much time people have given to listening to the new record when they say it’s more mellow, because there are mellow bits but the aggressive bits are a lot more abrasive than even the shit on Panopticon. Like, on Panopticon the heavy bits are open and washy, whereas on this album they’re bombastic and percussive. In fact, there are some riffs on Absence that are in the direction of straight-ahead metal, and I find, too, that as the record goes on it actually gets heavier.
So you don’t think that reviewers have given the record the chance it deserves?
Well, I wonder if people are writing about their first impressions, based on the first few songs, as there are some of the heaviest riffs we’ve written since Celestial on this album. I hope it’s a record people will come back to, and I do think that all of our records have been growers – over time you discover all the underlying layers, and that’s what we’re striving for. We don’t want our records to be immediately accessible the first time you listen to them.
Is that not a slightly dangerous game to be playing, commercially?
Yes, but we never imagined we’d get as far as we have now, and we’ve never let that side of things swing us. It’s obvious that people like us because of how we do things; we’re not purposefully trying to be difficult, but we are purposefully avoiding making catchy, pop-metal songs.
You also released your first DVD in 2006, which seemed to focus a lot on Celestial songs. Does it mark the closing of that chapter of the band’s career?
It’s not like a ‘fuck you’, we’re just saying that we can’t play these songs anymore. For those that wanted to see them again, maybe for the first time, here they are. That’s sort of the intention with the title, too; it’s a cleaning of the palette to have, y’know, a fresh start again.
You’re very involved in the artistic side of the band’s albums – was this the case with the DVD?
I just gave all the imagery to the people putting it together. It was a pretty labour-intensive process for us; it was very arduous sitting through all those fucking hours of videotape and trying to figure out what was good and what wasn’t. It’s hard to have any sense of objectivity, and it’s hard to remember a lot of the shows now. It’s painful to watch yourself, especially when you feel that you’ve grown a lot since that point. And after a while, in a three- or four-hour viewing session, we’d lose all perspective: it all seemed like shit to us.
So how did you select the songs and footage to use?
We carefully considered all the different aspects: what songs were best, and what performances stood out. We had to find out if the audio was good, and if the video was good enough. The quality of footage on the DVD does vary, but a lot of it is about capturing the atmosphere. Some of these songs aren’t perhaps the best performances, but somehow a little of the show’s energy and atmosphere is captured.
And you must have been working on Absence at the same time as the DVD…?
We were, so it was cool when the DVD was all done. When we got the finished reference disc back I ultimately felt really good about it. There are so many other DVDs that are practically content-less – they have one show, maybe – so we wanted something more substantial and well-rounded.
You also played an ATP Don’t Look Back show in 2006, performing Oceanic from beginning to end (at Koko, London, on July 23). How did that come about, and did it feel all that different from a regular show?
To be honest, it didn’t feel all that different from any other headline shows in London. The vibe was fairly similar, but it was strange for us to play that record in its entirety. We did our best at performing it in the most faithful way that we could, and tried to make some little embellishments and alter a few things to keep ourselves entertained, because at this point not only are those songs old but some of them have been played endlessly. So we had to figure out how to make it interesting for ourselves, and not just go through the motions.
And was that key prior to agreeing to play the show, to not simply play the album as it is on record?
I don’t think any of us would have felt good about it or consented to it in the first place otherwise. There were people that saw it as an ‘event’, in a different way to a normal Isis show. And, also, it was a good way for us to close the chapter on that era of the band. That’s not to say that we won’t ever play any of the Oceanic songs again, but we’ve done our duty with this one.