Hall of Fame Countdown: Isis's Oceanic

Isis had already carved an artistically successful path for themselves by the time the curtain rose on 2002.  The Mosquito Control and Red Sea EPs introduced a broad-thinking band who nonetheless trafficked in steamrolling heaviness with bare hints of what the band would eventually achieve.  Debut full-length Celestial and the accompanying SGNL>05 expanded their sonic and symbolic/psychological scope.  But what happened on Oceanic was truly magical, a confluence of songwriting and tone quality and pacing that, er, signaled a new depth for this rapidly evolving musical collective.  We inducted Oceanic into our Hall of Fame in our September 2012 issue (you can purchase it here), and at ten years old, it was about damn time.

Opinions will differ about the quality of what came next – many fans carry the torch for follow-up Panopticon and its successors, though I can’t say I ever found much on those records to keep me coming back – but it’s hard to deny that Oceanic marked an exciting developmental stage for Isis, when burly distortion was still a thematic element rather than an accent piece and contemplative crescendos built themselves into stunning peaks.  For a moment in time, Isis knew who they were, who they wanted to be and had the means and abilities to achieve all of it.  Not that it was all so obvious at the time, but uncertainty and artistic leaps of faith are the soul of great records, are they not?

We should also mention that, while Oceanic stands up powerfully all on its own, the later release of the Remixes and Reinterpretations compilation allows a rare and invaluable examination of all the layers present on the original recording and all the possibilities inherent in these pieces of music.  If you dig Oceanic but haven’t heard its deconstruction by Justin Broadrick, Mike Patton, Tim Hecker, Christian Fennesz and others, make that your new Priority #1.  It changed how I hear these songs, and it inevitably effects the list below.

Other writers in this series have said so already, but I’ll double (triple, quadruple…) down on the absurd difficulty of ranking these songs, especially in the case of Oceanic, whose mood constructs itself chronologically from opening percussion to closing string scrape, and not all of whose tracks were ever meant to be stand-alone songs (which we’ll address again soon).  You got a different ranking?  Bring it to the comments section and let’s brawl.

9.  untitled

What is this?  Only Isis will ever know.  As gentle noise interludes go, this one certainly continues to follow the album’s throughlines and undercurrents, never breaking up Oceanic’s attractive force while remaining completely alien, clearly apart from any sense of song or direct emotional projection.  Finely executed and far from unnecessary… Still, it’s not a song.

8.  "Maritime"

“Maritime” is the only part of Oceanic when sprightly melody comes with no ominous or violent strings attached.  The resulting respite from the overall dark mood of the album is perfectly placed – earlier, it would corrode the mounting structure; any later and it would feel like a shrugged-out afterthought.  In the pantheon of great Isis tunes, “Maritime” will always just be a brief dalliance between monumental ideas.

7.  "From Sinking"

The opening charge of “From Sinking” feels like the first jarring leap in Oceanic’s progression, and it suffers a little for that.  Not that a return to mountain-toppling ferocity isn’t appreciated or completely appropriate at this point, after a few tracks of mostly meandering gentleness, but the emotional cost of “Weight” is taxing enough that it’s hard to give “From Sinking” the kind of considered attention it deserves.  Also, the soft-to-loud switcheroo at the back end of the song feels a little too familiar now, after similar choices earlier in the album’s runtime have already had an arguably greater impact.

6.  "Hym"

“Hym” is, subtly, a departure from the rest of Oceanic.  There’s an ascending hopefulness to the song… or maybe the title introduces a bias that I haven’t been able to separate from my experience of the song.  “Hym” marks the famous beginnings of Aaron Turner’s efforts at developing his singing voice – a dubious distinction, as Mr. Turner’s singing voice has ever after been one of my least favorite aspects of the Isis sound.  Enraged roaring doesn’t fit every musical bill, of course, but if you sing like Turner, then enraged roaring is by far the preferable choice.  But we’ve strayed a bit.  “Weight” could have ended the album, but “Hym” is the next best way to get the job done.

5.  "The Other"

I found Oceanic early in my forays into heavy music, and I bought it mainly because it was released by Ipecac Recordings and I was in my Mike Patton ball-licking phase.  My ears were less attuned to things extreme, and a first run through the album didn’t sound much like the experimental weirdness I had hoped for.  It was on the second or third time through “The Other,” when I heard the drum effects and atmospheric background swirls, when I realized this album secreted away details that were worth digging for.  While the song is generally on par with its siblings, my enjoyment of it is mostly a hangover from “The Beginning and the End” and an anticipation of “False Light.”

4.  "False Light"

“False Light” is one of those songs that benefits from the remix treatment provided by Ayal Naor and the Oktopus (from noise-rap wizards Dälek).  Not that the original configuration is somehow inferior – the descent into a maelstrom of distortion at the six-minute mark is one of the album’s defining moments – but those outside artists polished facets of the song that make listening to its Oceanic incarnation all the more enjoyable.

3.  "Carry"

The droning slow-open is an intriguing tactic at this point in the record.  The shivery grace-notes-turned-tremolo-melody add to the mystery that “Carry” conjures.  A more decisive guitar lead opens the way for primal destruction overtop Maria Christopher’s background vocal haunting.  The driving heaviness of the song’s back half sets the stage beautifully for the mid-album mellow that follows.

2.  "The Beginning and the End"

Excellent opening!  Excellent live staple!  Excellent showcase of every Isis strength!  The immediate pulse – inaugurated by creative drumming, toothy chords and Turner’s bearded force – twines with curious guitar melodies and submerged vocals by (again) Naor and Christopher to forge an essential Isis artifact.  The late restraint of percussive aggression and its dynamic resurgence at the five-minute mark will never, ever get old.

1.  "Weight"

Like any great love affair, my adoration for this song is probably completely irrational.  Occasionally – like, just now after listening to the front half of Oceanic – I momentarily doubt that this protracted exercise in repetitive melody, languid percussion and trance-like string work really deserves such devotion.  Then those first seconds roll in and I go all gooey, willing to engage in shameless PDA with every part of “Weight.”  The lilting vocal contributions of Ayal Naor and Maria Christopher (and the absence of Aaron Turner’s mountain man bellow) charge the music and set it apart from the rest of the album.  “Weight” always seemed to be the emotional and thematic heart of Oceanic:  watery, rippling at the outset; relentlessly destructive by track’s end; the sonic equivalent of floating peacefully on your back in a serene (but deep) pool while smooth chains slip around your ankles, waist and chest to drag you slowly down to the airless darkness.  Permanently.  The album could have ended here and all would have been well.

Back when I still tried to convince people that this extreme music thing was worth their time and attention, I included “Weight” on several mix tapes/CDs, but never alone – I always frontloaded it with the two preceding tracks, the untitled noise bit and “Maritime” because I felt they cleared the mind of expectations and prepared the listener for complete immersion in “Weight.”  Naïve, yes, but I still think those tracks belong to a sort of prologue for “Weight,” and my very low placement of those songs on this list reflect that fact.

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