The so-called "information age" that we are now a part of--whether we like it or not--poses questions about the relationship between the control of information and power. The freedom the Internet has brought society at large has been a tool for exponential growth in recent years but could just as easily transform the world as we know it into some sort of Orwellian nightmare if improperly controlled. Certainly this discussion would be relevant in college classrooms and among philosophers--but what about on a metal album? Doesn't seem to fit, but Panopticon, the new album by the oft-dubbed "thinking man's metal" band Isis, conceptualizes this idea. "The Panopticon is a machine for disassociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen." This quote from the album's liner notes comes from one of famed philosopher/social critic Michel Foucault's most influential works, 1973's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Granted, I didn't delve much into philosophy in my undergraduate studies, but I did have to trip through some Foucault essays, and they were some of the densest, most provocative readings I encountered. However, heavy music typically lends itself to adolescent obsessions with evil and, to be blunt, stupidity. Isis' philosophic leaning on their third full-length album leads me to believe that they're smarter than your average hard rockers, or would at least like to have people believe so.
To describe Isis' music, one is inclined to use adjectives like brooding, monolithic, ambient, inventive and brutal. I could try to think of some more Deeds-isms, but I don't want to bore you. The five piece band--made up of Aaron Turner on vocals and guitar, Aaron Harris on drums, Jeff Caxide on bass, Mike Gallagher on guitar and B.C. Meyer on electronics, vocals, and even more guitar--have made quite the name for themselves within the underground scene in the past few years. Originally from Boston, Isis now hails from Los Angeles--also home to vocalist Aaron Turner's rad label, Hydra Head Records. They've toured with a veritable who's who of non-mainstream heavy bands: Melvins, Mogwai, Dillinger Escape Plan, Cave In, Neurosis and Napalm Death to name a few. Often compared to arena rockers Tool-- strengthened by the fact that Tool's bass player makes a cameo on the new album--Isis creates lengthy, textured compositions that stray far from typical rock structuring. On some levels, I agree with the Tool comparison, but I consider Isis' latest album to be more akin to the aforementioned art metal masters Neurosis, with some of their earlier material resembling the heaviness of Ipecac label mates the Melvins. Their previous releases are wrought with heavily distorted guitars and pounding rhythms, but with Panopticon they tone the distortion down a tad while experimenting with hypnotic structures that progress into dense walls of sound. And, as much as it sounds like a lame cliché, each song feels more like an experience than simply music.
As leery as I am of "concept albums," I'd say Isis actually pulls it off with Panopticon. In fact, I'd consider Isis' Celestial and Oceanic, their two previous records, to be examples of well put together concept albums. Most self-professed albums of this sort either link a few killer tracks together with a bunch of crappy filler songs--think Pink Floyd's The Wall (sorry Floyd fans)--or are just sonic piles of crap like Metallica's St. Anger--which I'm fairly confident is modeled after singer James Hetfield's need to start drinking again and the band finally realizing they should have called it quits a decade ago. While the lyrics are low in the mix and almost peripheral, the overall mood of the album lends itself to this somewhat paranoid vision of the world in respect to the idea of the Panopticon. The incredible album art, with its eagle-eyed view of suburban America, reminds us of the ever-increasing role of governmental--or otherwise--surveillance in our everyday lives, which is creepy if you really think about it.
Since receiving the CD from the Boise Weekly office last week, Panopticon has not left my stereo--and that rarely happens. Ambient, intricately layered and cleverly put together, this album delivers the goods. With only seven lengthy tracks, it's dense and intriguing music, and, like a Foucault essay, reveals something new and awesome with each listen. It should be quite the phenomenon to witness Isis showcasing their epic tuneage in a live setting at The Venue. One thing to count on for sure: it is going to be LOUD.
Isis with These Arms Are Snakes and nuvaxx, Saturday, November 20, 7 p.m., $8, The Venue, 523 Broad St., 919-0011, www.boisevenue.com.