On Tuesday October 19th, 2004, Los Angeles-based metal band ISIS released their third full-length album, titled ‘Panopticon’. This is my review, analysis, and thoughts on the album, and why it is still important to me today, almost twelve years later after its release.
Capitalizing on the success of their sophomore album, ‘Oceanic’, the band began writing the album in September of 2003, and according to Vocalist and Lead Guitar player Aaron Turner, the album’s inception and sound was organic, rather than engineered. “We were interested in exploring ambient spaces a lot more, and these things tend to dictate a longer structure.” They took their time, but by June of 2004, they were set to record what would be, in my opinion, their defining album as a band that would not be repeated again.
The concept of the album and its title, “Panopticon” comes from English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, where in 1785, envisioned a form of prison system where a central guard tower could be manned by a single watchman, that would keep an eye on all of the inmates without them knowing if they were being watched or not. However, as it is not possible for the guard to physically observe all inmates at once, the fact that the inmates do not know when they are being watched or not, means that they all must act as though they are being watched constantly, essentially controlling their own behaviour.
More recently, this concept has been used to describe the internet and how some of its users feel the need to watch what they are doing online as they are in fear of prosecution for things “that they shouldn’t be doing or shouldn’t be looking at”. This paradox of unknown constant surveillance translated into a relevant theme that worked well lyrically with the album as vocalist Turner did not need many words to convey this theme within the songs of the album. On the second track of the album, ‘Backlit’, the lyrics speak for themself:
Can you see us? Are we there?
Are we there…
Can you see me? We are watching
We are watching…
You are fading…
In the daylight… Fading…
Always upon you, light never ceases
Lost from yourself, light never ceases
Thousands of eyes, gaze never ceases
Light is upon you, life in you ceases
The theme of the ‘light’ as the “big brother watching” is prevalent in all of the songs of the album, and as the music itself has a dark and heavier sound, there are, in my opinion, parallels similar to the concept of black and white. Are we being watched? or are we not?, is it there? or is it not?, with no in-between. Sometimes, if you really listen to the lyrics, you can almost sense the opposite of what is being said lyrically to what is being heard sonically. To classify ISIS as a “Metal” band would not give them justice, as there are so many elements of other genres, especially in this album, that sets them apart on a soundscape of their own.
With elements of metal, doom, sludge, post, drone, electronic, and instrumental, the album stands on its own as a wonderfully dynamic experience. With no track on the album shorter than six minutes, its seven songs provide an ever-changing, sprawling, and brooding listening experience. The majority of the album is instrumental, where it really allows the musicianship of the band to shine through. Being a drummer myself, I always tend to listen specifically to the drums being performed whenever I listen to music, and Drummer Aaron Harris is to be commended for developing a sound that works so well with the album. It is unfortunate where modern metal music seems to need to be fast, loud, and heavy to get its point across, where the drummer is sometimes, I feel, a glorified drum machine, pounding out blast beats or double bass drum riding the whole song along. Don’t get me wrong, there are great bands and songs where that style of drumming fits in great, but it would never work on an album sounding like this.
Harris plays the album very quiet and methodical, taking the time to guide the music along as he forms beats heavy on hi-hat, single bass drum, and snare usage, while progressing the intensity and complexity of playing as the rest of the members build the songs in waves of sound to a crescendo, decrescendo, and back again. Rarely using the crash cymbals unless accenting, he really hits it home playing the subtleties of the songs, as you can almost hear him counting in his head as the song builds, “one bass drum hit this bar, two the next, and three the next”. His standout performance on the album is the track ‘In Fiction’, where he builds the background piece by piece of a beautifully crafted song that ends in an epic wall of sound crashing down on the ears of the listener.
The album truly takes to heart the never-ending theme of the ‘Panopticon’, where I feel a fictional narrative could be told of the album. The opening track ‘So Did We’ bursts in like criminals kicking in the door and shooting a gun into the air, ready to rob a bank. ‘Backlit’ is the group celebrating in their success while living the high life, but being under slight suspicion of each other that they might still one day be caught for their crime. ‘In Fiction’ builds the tension up to a critical tipping point, where the members eventually turn on each other when they are finally discovered for their crime and are about to be caught. They try to evade capture, the chase ensues, but it is all for naught. ‘Wills Disolve’ moves the group into the prison that they are all now residents of, where their hopes and aspirations of returning to their normal lives start slowly melting away. Months later,‘Syndic Calls’ relives the moments of the men wishing to see or hear from their friends and family once again, but to find out that they have all moved on without them, disassociating themselves with their criminal pasts. ‘Altered Course’ is the longtime planned and eventual prison break. Tired of being held down by the fear of constant surveillance, they find a way to escape and make their way to their newly found freedom. Lastly, ‘Grinning Mouths’ is their inability to return to their normal lives they once had, being constantly cautious by a life on the run, and also being fed up with a new life of constant change with nobody being able to take them seriously. They eventually then return to the one and only thing they still know, staring again at that bank door, gun in hand, taking a deep breath and lifting their foot ready to kick it back in, a full circle complete in a life full of crime.
If you listen to the music closely, especially the guitar work at the start of the first track, and the very ending of the last track, they can almost fit together to complete a circle of sound, that resembles the ‘Panopticon’, to start the whole experience all over again. Listen to the album on repeat and pay attention to that transition to truly get what I mean, it’s hard to explain, but noticeable when you hear it. It is not an exact perfect match, and I don’t think the band planned for it that way, but I can’t think of any other album that I have personally listened to before where this happens and that I felt it was even possible. Such is the sheer wondrous beauty of a truly real concept album.
ISIS’ tour of the album allowed for some of their live performances to be recorded that would be later featured on their only live DVD, titled ‘Catching the Eye’. On that DVD, their performances of songs from the album worked perfectly in a live setting, where my fears of it being a “Metal Show” would have cast aside all of the precious dynamics of the songs. Below is a link to a video of a performance from that DVD, of my favourite song from the album, ‘In Fiction’. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOo-7kijbcg – I was fortunate enough to see them perform live once, in September of 2006 as they toured in Toronto, Ontario with fellow Los Angeles rockers, Tool. Their live performance filled the outdoor amphitheatre as I’m sure they gained new fans that evening that would never have seen or heard of them before the tour.
Unfortunately, six short years and two albums after Panopticon, on May 18th 2010, ISIS announced their decision to break up. Their final show was to be held in Montreal, the location of the band’s very first show, on June 23rd 2010. ISIS collectively stated that they have “done everything we wanted to do, said everything we wanted to say,” and, as part of an agreement made by the band at its formation, it did not wish to be faced with the possibility that it would “push past the point of a dignified death.” In a silver lining situation, all of the members have since continued onto other projects, significantly a collaboration of Drummer Harris, Bassist Jeff Caxide, and Guitarist Bryant Cliffard Meyer along with Deftones Singer Chino Moreno named ‘Palms’. Their album was released in June of 2013.
I currently find myself a little spoiled as the band released a remastered edition of the album back in April of 2014, and I have been listening to it on repeat over and over again this past week as I was planning on how to write this review. The remaster gives a new depth of sound that just further enhances the clarity of the instruments and highlights the dynamics a little bit more. Audio “purists” might think of remastering old albums as sacrilege, but I feel it gives the album a chance to be presented in a way that might have not been technically available when its original creation was completed.
As this is my first review on Panoptic Media Blog, I don’t have a rating system in place as of yet. But I feel that this album will be the benchmark to beat for all music reviews as it is one of my top favourite albums of all time. This whole experience that is ‘Panopticon’ served as my inspiration for the creation of the name for the Panoptic Media Blog, a vessel where an individual could witness all aspects of media and report on them. I hope that my words gave you an insight of what I feel and think about when I listen to music, and that if you have not listened to ISIS before, that you would at least give them a listen to, to see if you can hear where I am coming from as I humbly write this for you.