Tool this, kids

Oct 25, 2006 at 12:00 am

Isis has been leading the charge of the so-called "hipster metal" movement for a while now, along with groups like SunnO))) and Mastodon. But if there's a mainstream metal band that fits with Isis' sound, Tool is it. Both groups employ sprawling, spacey atmospheres; both drop into straightforward, trad-metal pummeling to accent those moody concoctions; and both recognize that there are many times when the music speaks loud enough without vocals getting in the way. Both groups also forever duel with the hopelessly loaded descriptor "prog."

Clearing the Eye, Isis' recent DVD release, features several live performances, from a 2001 set at (the now-shuttered) NYC shithole CBGB to a show three-and-a-half years later at Tokyo's Club Quatro, where a thousand kids crammed in to see the band. And now, barely a year after that Tokyo show, Isis has just wrapped up a summer as the opener for — wait for it — Tool, no doubt playing to crowds much larger than it was used to, and possibly larger than the group ever expected. But Isis should get used to it, because nowadays metal really is the new indie chic.

In the Absence of Truth, the band's latest album, is easily its most ambitious yet. Which is an odd situation for Isis to be in — right at the point where its sound is the broadest, and the group is on its biggest tour yet, it's embarking on a stylistic journey that old-school fans might not like. Fortunately, there are plenty of listeners yearning for something more challenging and dynamic from metal, something beyond lightning speed and growling, something beyond even proggy noodling, and Isis seems ready to take that challenge. The songs on Absence are huge, open-air affairs. They lurch forward, shifting through clean, dreamy sequences, monolithic heaviness and melodies steeped in delay and reverb, echoing out from the speakers in waves. Vocalist Aaron Turner spends more time singing than using his usual bestial growl. But this, along with the sparse use of Isis's characteristically intense heavy moments, only draws more attention to the vocals when they do occur. The final minute of "Holy Tears," for example, is absolutely brutal, and Turner's scream is all the more powerful because it isn't being overused. Isis is trying to branch out, to make something with elements from everywhere in its career, and from the sound of Absence, the band is succeeding.

Cory D. Byrom writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].