Isis / These Arms Are Snakes - live in Portland (Cover Artwork)

Isis / These Arms Are Snakes

live in Portland (2006)

live show

Isis. Stoner metal? Jam metal? Thinking man's jam stoner metal? Ambient jam metal? I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that they blew my fucking mind a few days ago.

First off, there were other bands on this tour, but I only caught a few songs from These Arms Are Snakes. I've heard a lot of good things about these guys, and the music is certainly not as offensive as their name, but they didn't leave much of an effect on me. Kind of spastic mid-tempo rock that hinges on being technically interesting but really isn't. I don't know, maybe it comes off better on record.

Now, for perspective's sake, I knew very little about the adored Isis upon going into the show. I'd owned their latest full-length Panopticon for a while now, had heeded my friend's advice and listened to it a few times when I was all baked, and that had been about the end of it until now.

The first thing I noticed about them was how focused and purposeful their playing was. There were no histrionics or mic swinging (I'm looking at you, These Arms Are Snakes), as they didn't need to convince anyone of anything, but their intensity of expression and absolute cohesion of sound completely enveloped the room. Their onstage interaction with each other comprised mainly of looks and nods in between the occasional head-bang, but like everything else about the performance, the subtlety belied a wealth of experience and ability. Throughout their stay on that dimly lit stage, they were the utter image of a unified group of musicians.

The band spent most of their time developing simple fragments of melody against slow-moving progressions with minimal showmanship. Everything was presented at varying degrees of not quite as fast as a walking tempo, with the drummer always playing just behind the beat. And here lies the beauty of Isis, as this simplicity brought out every single nuance to the point where every foreign chord, fill, over the bar pattern or odd time signature created waves in the crowd.

The vocals, courtesy of Aaron Turner, have to be noted, as he has one of the more powerful voices I've heard in a long time. Though comparatively low in the mix (exactly as it is on record), he has a low guttural growl that is heart-rending, alternating with great sung vocals that retain that grit and power. As I mentioned, the vocals are kept lower in the mix than most bands, which makes the voice less ‘the human element' and more just another piece in their obsessively constructed wall of sound.

As far as a set list, like I said, I was a casual fan before this concert so I didn't catch many of the titles. They definitely played the first few tracks off of Panopticon: "So Did We," "Backlit" and "In Fiction," and a friend of mine who knows their back catalog better said the rest of their set came largely from that album as well.

Also of note, the Loveland sounded fucking incredible. Shows there usually sound fine (especially compared to the Hawthorne) but for whatever reason every instrument sounded huge and clear as day.

Anyway, so while still a difficult band to describe to your buddies ("It's metal, and they like, scream and stuff, but it's's really soothing somehow…"), Isis are doing something very special. There is a tremendous patience in Isis's music and hence in their concert experience that is unlike much else I've heard. At times meditative and ambient while conversely often poignant and cathartic, there is a breadth of emotion in Isis that is unmatched by many of their peers. Best show I've seen in a long time.