Unless you came of age as an East Coast hardcore kid, happened to catch them opening for Tool or are a big fan of punishing, 10-minute-long songs with barked vocals, you may not be very familiar with ISIS.
Well, you'd better jump on that train, because it's leaving town. ISIS are breaking up as of June 22, 2010, and to far less attention than they deserve.
What's most surprising about their breakup, however, is not just that it's happening, but, rather, how amicable and well-planned it seems to be. In their official statement, the band writes, “In the interest of preserving the love we have for this band, for each other, for the music made and for all the people who have continually supported us, it is time to bring it to a close. We've seen too many bands push past the point of a dignified death, and we all promised one another early on in the life of the band that we would do our best to ensure ISIS never fall victim to that syndrome.”
I'm deeply in awe of this decision, because rock bands, especially those with a moderate degree of success, rarely ever stick to their guns on anything, much less agreeing on when to call it a day.
So, what's the lesson here? I'd suggest that ISIS's career should be used as a template for aspiring independent bands. Despite how quickly a group can piggyback on a few home-recorded demos to blog fame these days, there's still something to be said for musicians that earn their fans—working and touring long and hard to develop a distinct sound, not to mention incorporating concepts and themes in their work that might initially fly over the heads of less-attentive listeners.
At one point, ISIS were a personal revelation, organically outgrowing their more straightforward aggression and managing to adapt to something more positive, epic and powerful. For me, they peaked sometime between the release of Oceanic's moody mid-tempo dirge and Panopticon's more uplifting expanse. But for many others, they continued to be one of heavy music's brightest talents, even toward the end of their 13-year lifespan.
The band demands serious respect and devotion in certain circles and has never compromised its integrity or ideals. They clearly could've signed to a major label but decided to take their own path, one that even brought them minor chart success (their last album, Wavering Radiant, hit Billboard at No. 98) despite their avoidance of typical pop song structures.
At the same time, guitarist and vocalist Aaron Turner has operated Hydra Head Records since he was a teenager, which, to anybody with even a passing interest in modern heavy music, should be recognized as a beacon of good taste and DIY ethics.
Hydra Head has released at least three of the best heavy albums of the past decade—see Jesu's Silver, Torche's Meanderthal and Pelican's Australasia—and a load of others that aren't far behind. That's not to mention Turner's involvement with several other projects (Old Man Gloom and the fearsome GREYMACHINE come to mind) and the fact that his austere graphic design has graced the covers of a large number of Hydra Head's releases. This is a man with a lot on his hands, and he and his bandmates (a couple of whom perform with Red Sparowes) should be plenty busy after the split.
Strangely, there were several signs from beyond instructing me to devote this column to the band. First, I was coincidentally wearing an ISIS T-shirt I'd purchased at one of their shows several years back when I read the news of their demise. Next, I realized that they were playing The Casbah on the day this column is to be printed (Wednesday, May 26), which was too prescient to ignore.
Finally, it dawned on me that their tasteful, unified resignation is representative of a pragmatism and subtlety not often practiced in rock music. We've all had instances where bands we admire have not only fallen from grace, but practically defecated all over their respective legacies with subpar albums and shameless reunion cash-ins. This, thankfully, is not one of those occasions.
Bands like ISIS simply don't exist anymore. Literally. You may be reading about the last of a dying breed. And that's worth writing about in itself.
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