Heavy Thoughts:
Isis Deconstructs Themselves

Isis pic #1
Isis. Photo by Mark Darwursk.
In their 12-year existence, Boston-turned-L.A. band Isis have done as much as any to continue blurring the edges between brutally heavy and emotionally murky avant-garde approaches to music. I spoke with guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner and guitarist/keyboardist Cliff Meyer during their Houston tour stop in support of their most recent LP, Wavering Radiant. In spite of an hour's delay in meeting (owing to the band's dinner stop at the nearby Kim Son for takeout), they spoke at length about the creative processes at work within Isis, revealing some unexpected sources of inspiration and points of aspiration.
With the band one week into their national tour in support of Wavering Radiant, we begin by weighing the relative merits of recording albums and playing live. Meyer speaks highly of both, but ultimately comes down in favor of the creative crucible offered in the studio.
"I definitely like recording," he says. "It's the more creative part of the process, as opposed to tour where it's more of a social event."
Turner concurs. "I'd say on the days that we have shows that go really well, it might be the most exciting experience, but both things can be really mundane. If I had to choose one, I'd choose recording. It's more about the actual process of creation than re-creation."
This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the ornate construction and conspicuous production of Isis's records. In point of fact, Turner is responsible for the design of all of Isis's records, in addition to most of the records released on his own label, Hydra Head Industries. Unsurprisingly, both cite vinyl as their preferred medium for releasing music.
For Turner, there is an essential link between the sonic and visual aspect of his album work.
"I try not to be too formulaic," he says. "I think the visuals have a way of relating to each other in a way that a lot of the music relates [to itself]. I listen intently to the music and think about the best way to represent those sounds in a visual fashion."

"It's always been my intention to create imagery that's an accurate representation of the music," Turner continues. "Attempting to create something that's a complete experience -- everything's supposed to be part of this one cohesive entity. It's not an afterthought. It's a very integral part of it."
The essential unity of sound and image for Isis is in part an indebtedness to the heavy, progressive musical tradition they carry forward. Citing such bands as Swans, Godflesh, and the Melvins as influences on his band, Turner affirms a close kinship with the gatefold artefacts of his younger record-collecting years.
"The idea that music is just this elusive thing that doesn't really exist, except as a little bit of space on a hard drive somewhere, is kind of a hard thing to wrap your head around when you've put so much into making an album. Our earlier experiences with music, with albums that are important to us, it was about the whole thing. It was about the association you had when you looked at the cover [and] the atmosphere it evoked."
"We've definitely made an effort to get listeners [and] viewers to engage on a deeper, maybe even more intellect creative level than perhaps some other bands have attempted to do. We're certainly not along in that effort. I think that in and of itself is an important gesture in a time when there's not much emphasis placed on creative thinking and psychological introspection, and I think those are very important aspects of being human that are too often disregarded in the current culture, especially ours."
This last comment prompts an inquiry into the potential for political content in Isis's records. Despite being embraced by much of the mainstream metal crowd, with favorable write-ups and ratings from headbangers' rags like Terrorizer, Turner, Meyer, and their bandmates come from the Northeastern hardcore community, where socioeconomic claims and critiques are nothing to shy away from. Though there is nothing so direct as Until Your Heart Stops-era Cave In proclamations on Wavering Radiant or elsewhere, it would be surprising for the extended musical consciousness of a "thinking-man's metal" band to correlate to a deeper consideration of the world.
Isis record cover
Turner affirms this connection. "We've tried to stay away from overtly political subjects, but at the same time, as i said, make work that encourages people to think on a different level than is normally required of them, at least in rock music. Maybe we have introduced an idea -- and bring a different level of consciousness and a different perspective into a realm where that stuff is not considered."
Meyer confirms the influence of political environment on the band's writing. "With the previous records, it was hard to ignore what was going on. It was hard not to make a tangent between any kind of story that might seem slightly political to what was going on. And I think that's important. I think that's something that comes out of the music and in the ideas in the lyrics, and it's something that people should think about whether we present it as a political thing or not."
"Whatever i'm ingesting at the time i'm working on a record has a tendency to rub off," says Turner. "Like Cliff was saying, even though we've been careful not to have an overtly political stance, at the time we were making particular records, there was shit that was hard to ignore, with Panopticon especially. That was the apex of the shenanigans as perpetuated by the Bush Administration and the height of American paranoia about an Islamic threat. So that stuff had to come into play one way or another, however disguised in the final product."
Isis pic #2
Isis. Photo by Faith Coloccia.
This discussions segues to questions about a more overt -- but no less unusual -- theme throughout the history of Isis: the role of the feminine. Female vocalists lent emotional counterballast to Turner's bellow on Oceanic, their acknowledged masterpiece. A female protagonist makes frequent appearances in the lyrics and imagery of several albums. The band's name itself belongs to an Egyptian goddess whose cult was widespread throughout antiquity, drawing devotees with a maternal promise of life after death. Though he declines to speak for the rest of the band, Turner has much to say about his personal stake in balancing the scales of gender within heavy metal.
"I think in the beginning [Isis] might've been a little more testosterone-driven, more aggressive, and mostly male-oriented, but as time has gone on we have integrated a lot of more elements that do have a softer, more feminine aspect to them. I think having injected those sensibilities into the music is really important. It's a wider emotional spectrum that's being covered. There's an appeal beyond young, angry white guys. There is something to be said for that.
"A lot of things that have become recurrent elements of lyrics, and just in the music itself, have a very elemental aspect to them. A lot of it has a feminine connotation, too, so I think there are some intuitive gestures on our part that really weren't conscious, and there are other things I thought about consciously in that regard.
"I grew up in a household where I had a mother and three sisters, so I was very exposed to feminine energy. My mom taught me from a very early age about feminism, womens' rights, and gender equality, stuff like that. So I think I've been sensitive to that. I think part of the problems we have on a cultural level [is] ignoring those aspects of ourselves that might be related more to the opposite gender -- men ignoring the feminine side of themselves, women ignoring the more masculine elements of their persona."
When asked about the significance of naming the band, Turner gives an answer that fits in perfectly with the trajectory of a band that has grown their artistic vision at equal pace with their popularity over ten-odd years.
"The choice of the name Isis at the beginning was purely an aesthetic thing; it didn't really have much to do with the mythology behind it. But considering our evolution and the themes that we've addressed, it's become increasingly important over time." END