When Isis changed course in 2002 to embrace a more graceful, slow-burning take on sludge metal with Oceanic, they left a deep imprint on metal that marks one of its most important developments in the last 10 years. More post-rock than Neurosis, and less Floyd than Tool, Isis played a crucial part in changing the course of metal, and as a result may be responsible for more than a handful of otherwise hesitant listeners to embrace heavy music. So when they broke up in 2010, after releasing their outstanding Wavering Radiant the year before, they didn’t so much leave a void as a whole new league of apprentice atmospherists in their wake.
Of course, few are or will ever be as good at playing atmospheric post-metal in the way that Isis did, but such is the price of innovation. The remarkable thing is just how consistent the band’s albums were, essentially maintaining a pretty fierce winning streak between 2000’s Celestial and 2009’s Wavering Radiant. So, it’s a tad disappointing to know there won’t be any new Isis material in the future, though that doesn’t mean the vaults had been completely purged. As one last gesture of goodwill, the Los Angeles-based band released one last two-disc collection of rarities, titled Temporal.
Temporal, much like just about any other compilation of odds and sods, straddles the line between essential outtakes and diehards-only material. A good half of the set comprises demo versions of songs from various Isis albums, some of which are pretty cool — most notably the alternate version of “Ghost Key,” which is even more eerie than the studio version. However, it’s mostly in the second half where the overflow of outtakes is truly rewarding. The juxtaposition of a particularly gnarly cover of Godflesh’s “Streetcleaner” against a bluesier, sparse take on Black Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom” shows off the band’s roots with a great deal of contrast. “Pliable Foe” and “Way Through Woven Branches,” from a split with Melvins, focus heavily on Isis’ melodic and moody side, which came to flourish more prominently than their burly sludge side from earlier on. The real treat is the acoustic version of “20 Minutes/40 Years,” which translates remarkably well and can’t be said of many metal songs.
Given just how strong all of Isis’ albums are, any outtakes, by default, were probably never going to measure up, but that’s not really the point of Temporal anyhow. It’s a peek behind the curtain, a look into the band at their most raw and without the polish of a finished production. It’s the sound of a band at work, fleshing out ideas and sometimes coming across something brilliant.
Stream: Isis – “Streetcleaner”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.