Isis - Panopticon (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick


Panopticon (2004)


It would be impossible to talk about Isis without talking about their musical, if not literal roots. Like Neurosis, with whom they share more than a postfix, the band began playing heavy post-hardcore (on Mosquito Control and Pain of Mind, respectively) but soon evolved into more sonically expansive territory. While Neurosis ventured down a road of industrial and tribal drumming overlayed with distorted walls of sound, Isis took a slightly different path, incorporating more melodic, even orchestral composition styles.

With Oceanic, their first record for Mike Patton's Ipecac label, the band finally delivered on the promise of their SGNL 05 and Celestial recordings; deriving as much from post-hardcore and metal as they did from iconic instrumental acts like Sigur Ros and Mono. The record was an epic, sprawling achievement fully deserving of its name. Tracks running an average of eight minutes, and structured more like chapters in a sprawling hour long novel than a conventional record. Even more surprising was its beginning familiarity with melodic flourishes and even the angelic vocals of Ayl Noar and Maria Christopher who provide the hypnotic accompaniments to Aaron Turners harsh bark on "The Beginning and the End" and "Weight."

In the intermittent years, Turner has seen the release of records from three separate side projects, in the form of his alternately ambient and skull-crushing Old Man Gloom, his psychedelic House of Low Culture and his experimental Lotus Eaters. No one could really blame him if the follow up to Oceanic took a few more years, and yet, late in 2004, we see the release of Panopticon.

Based loosely on an new type of prison "invented" by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century who wrote that the prison would convey on the prisoner the "sentiment of an invisible omniscience1" It was further placed in political context by the outspoken neo-Marxist French media critic and philosopher Michele Foucault, who famously explained that the panopticon:

...arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions - to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide - it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.2
which, more simply put, is the argument that the panopticon facilitates the total information awareness which informs complete population control used in prisons and eventually the army, the school and the factory. The goal being to ensure a fully functioning and efficient society with complete subservience - and more importantly - willingness to cooperate with power. This, significantly more constructivist view of society is a fairly sharp departure from the conventional left=good, right=bad so popular in the music community and in many ways, imparts the complex and nuanced approach Isis takes to its music.

The opening track, So Did We is more reflective of this dynamic and complex approach; beginning with Turner screaming over some heavy riffing before breaking down into a slowly growing thunderstorm at the 30 second mark. It flows forward, gradually taking on more baggage and sound before reaching a set of individual peaks before hitting it's soaring climax. The structure of repeating themes with an underlying "storyline" is more like the classical Aristotelean narrative3 than a song; with no conventional verses, choruses or anything else familiar to be found.

The next track, Backlit - already a favorite of many Isis fans - is the most startling shift for the band from their prior material, certainly their most instrumentally lush and melodic and combined one of Turners few forays into clean, soaring vocals. And in many ways, the track demonstrates what is so different about Isis' Panopticon. As a whole, the record is imparted with a completely new melodic sense, and while melodies were often buried - to great effect, albeit - under walls of noise on previous recordings, Panopticon places them front and center, making this certainly their most friendly and accessible work to date, if you can get past the seven or eight minute songs of course.

All those accomplishments aside, the only flaw that I found in this otherwise exemplary recording was the less engrossing overall structure of the record; while Oceanic was, as I mentioned earlier, novel like in its structure with each chapter forming an overall arc, Panopticon is more like a series of short stories - disconnected, perhaps - but clearly penned by the same hand.

That fairly nit-picky complaint aside, while this record demands a great deal from the listener - attention and patience, certainly - those who give it a chance will find a band that is truly special, and manages to consistently exceed expectations.

1 – Benthan, Jeremy The Panopticon Writings (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 29-95
2 – Foucault, Michel Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books 1995) pp. 195-228
3 – Aristotle Poetics (New York: Hill & Wang 1961)