Last week, during the typical Friday afternoon shackles-off slump into weekend relaxation, office conversation turned to the topic of gigs; more specifically, to the listing of bands whose live performance/s had left the onlooker in question feeling physically sickened. SunnO))) received a couple of mentions, as did Part Chimp and Pelican; but the name of one heavyweight act of the alternative metal scene (if you wish to shoehorn the aforementioned into a single sub-genre) never once came whispering from lips longing for the first sip of burdens-off-shoulders Friday night beer. Isis.
The Los Angeles quintet – whose roots stretch back to pre-Millennium Boston and the tech-metal-cum-inventive-hardcore movement associated with the city – have been seen in the flesh a good many times by these eyes; their thunderous, skull-rattling riffs, unsettling keyboard soundscapes and incessant, battering-ram drums have resonated within these ear canals ‘til only a miniscule patch of microscopic sound-receiving hairs remains (a tip: do take ear plugs to an Isis show). Yet not once have these senses retreated to safety, taking whatever precaution is necessary to avoid neuromuscular overload and, ultimately, the regurgitation of two or more pints and a packet of dry roasted (traditional pre-gig fare, no?). The reason, I’ve concluded, is this: the songs of Isis work on two distinct levels. While they’re as sonically powerful as anything that the outfits previously referenced can conjure from traditional instruments, they’re also peculiarly affecting on an emotional level. It’s this humanistic relationship the songs have with their audience that truly separates Isis from a slew of peers that master the art of composition but fail to connect their work to their audience’s hearts. Hearts that are so swelled at an Isis show that the stomach simply has to room to manoeuvre its contents from abdomen to auditorium floor.
Of course, this conclusion is nothing long-term fans of Isis don’t already know: the band’s success to date is such that members are no longer required to work depressing office jobs to make ends meet (unless you consider vocalist Aaron Turner’s position at Hydra Head Records to be such a type of employment). Music is paying their way, and although they’re not about to gatecrash the upper echelons of album charts worldwide come the release of their fourth studio album, In The Absence Of Truth, next month, they are at least comfortable in the expectation that said album will shift enough ‘units’ to finance album number five, as and when. Clearing The Eye is pitched as a neat-enough summarisation of the band’s live career to date: performances are captured on high-resolution film, and the DVD is packaged with a glossy booklet containing photographs, detailed notes on each song caught on camera, and lyrics should you wish to growl along at home. As an introduction to Isis it’s a recommended purchase – selections from the band’s first album proper Celestial are included alongside many a song from 2004’s Panopticon, and the discography ‘extra’ is sure to have newcomers compiling a Christmas list in no time at all – but existing aficionados will, if they’re anything like this one, come away from the experience feeling a little undernourished.
Yes, the crispness of the footage is largely impressive, but a number of clips feature only a single camera angle throughout lengthy songs. That does not absorbing viewing equal. The one-off selections – which date from as far back as a 2001 show at CBGB’s, New York – are fairly forgettable, despite the band’s documented reasons for their inclusion. “This is one of the first venues where we really started to feel welcomed,” the notes explain, referring to CBGB’s. “We can recall that this was our very first headlining tour, with support from Thrones and Knut.” For obsessive geeks everywhere this footage is therefore no doubt gold dust itself, Isis history in their living rooms; for many others, though, the almost complete lack of atmosphere that’s exuded by these clips is worrying.
Clearing The Eye’s real selling point, though, is footage from an entire set. Filmed in Sydney last year, at the Annadale Hotel, multiple camera angles bring additional life to a nine-song performance that sees the band concentrating on material from Panopticon; that said, the highlight of the gig (and of all the DVD’s live footage) is its encore, ‘From Sinking’. The Oceanic album is rather under-represented here, so its penultimate number comprises a welcome climax of iridescent aggression and peerless emotional impact on this DVD. It’s just possible, if you listen hard come its closing chords, to hear the front few rows’ hearts bursting as one. Another Oceanic cut is included as a standalone clip, but the ‘alternative’ version of ‘Weight’, recorded in Los Angeles last year, is lifeless and limp, despite its execution by an expanded line-up featuring Justin Chancellor and Troy Zeigler.
The DVD also includes the band’s only promotional video to date, for ‘In Fiction’. The notes confirm its rather poor reception at the majority of music television channels – “We thought people might be interested in a band that didn’t have vocals over every section of a given song… Boy, were we wrong” – but the chances are that all but a handful of Isis fans will have seen it online. Suitably dark and confusingly ambiguous interpretation-wise, the Josh Graham-directed video suits Isis’s music perfectly; indeed, the video comprises such a standout moment on this collection of bits ‘n’ pieces that one wonders why further films weren’t made for additional songs. If the band had delayed the release of this DVD a little, allowing filmmakers to contribute clips to accompany pre-selected tracks, then the additional value would have made Clearing The Eye an absolutely recommended release for fans old and new.
As it is, though, this DVD suffers from a distinct lack of all things spectacular. Isis fans have come to expect only the best from the band; they flock to shows to be moved and touched, to have their troubles lifted by the band’s sublime shifts from sparkling passages of introspective intricacy to crushing bombast. They don’t expect to be bored, simply because Isis’s track record implies that they won’t be. That this reviewer is far from absorbed by what’s on offer across over two hours of footage should convey the accurate, undeniable fact that this isn’t quite the release it should have been. The menu screens are attractive and the droning background ambience sets a distinct tone, one that fans of the band’s records will instantaneously recognise; therefore, they’re sure to feel a familiar tingle of excitement spread across their bodies, from neck down spine to toes and back up to eyes widened and expectant. To have grand hopes scattered by some below-par concert footage and the transferring of next to no atmosphere is really quite, well, depressing. Yes, these songs are, for the most part, brilliant. But there’s absolutely nothing here that will display to the uninitiated just how brilliant Isis can be live.
This is escapism on a par with that first sip of Friday evening beer; it’s really nothing special, and anyone can do it. Clearing The Eye comprises the band’s first average-at-best release in a long while, which says what about the forthcoming In The Absence Of Truth? Nothing – the new album’s great. So, let’s consider this a blip, a slight stain on a previously unsoiled canvass, and get on with the business of praising those who succeed at expanding boundaries, at furthering the cause of genuinely inventive music. The five men of Isis have done just that, and will continue to do so, regardless of how this patchy offering is received by friends and foes, single-minded acolytes and temporarily disaffected critics alike.
6Mike Diver's Score