“Noise guy Thomas Dimuzio captures that quality on his brilliant remix of "Holy Tears”."— Pitchfork Media
During their 13-year career of erratic modulation from steely-eyed metal to starry-eyed post-metal, Isis released just five albums. That number feels, at least at first glance, surprisingly slight. Maybe that's because of the band's propensity for immersive and intricate tracks, which made each of those records feel like a new gauntlet or seminar that was to be endured and dissected, pondered and analyzed. Oceanic, the band's conspicuous and conscious turn toward grandeur in 2002, didn't lend itself to one or two background listens, like some pugnacious pop-punk or death metal platter; rewards came with repeated plays. At least for listeners, the Isis album cycle tended to be, like the material itself, protracted. That LP count also seems slim because the actual volume of Isis' output until the band's end in 2010 was extremely high: Between splits and remixes, collaborations and side-projects, live albums and singles, Isis released an intimidating amount of music, even if it wasn't confined to typical album formats.
Both Isis' ponderous tracks and prolific nature are central aspects of Temporal, a 2xCD and DVD (or 3xLP and DVD) package that combines a handful of heretofore unreleased rehearsal and alternate takes with songs that the band routed to those limited-edition releases instead of proper records. That's actually the taxonomy the material follows: disc one contains six demos (five of which are for songs on proper Isis albums), while disc two gathers seven remixes, covers, interludes, and split sides ahead of a toothless (but unreleased) acoustic version of one of their anthems. The DVD serves as a sort of truncated greatest hits collection, repackaging three widely released music videos with two new ones. Aside from the songs and film, Temporal is a decidedly minimalist set, especially for a band that never seemed to fear brazen proclamations: The liner notes are cursory, giving credit to engineers and producers and labels along the way but offering little context apart from initial recording dates.
The most and least notable tracks on Temporal close its two respective discs: Recorded in 2001 before the band made its move from Massachusetts to Los Angeles, "Grey Divide" remained stuck in resin as a demo tape until drummer Aaron Harris mixed it earlier this year for release here. It's a righteous Isis anthem, rising and winding and falling through multiple crests and troughs over its 17 minutes. Isis never pushed these lengths on an actual LP, but their commitment to slow burn and interwoven sections at this early point in their development portends the successes of the four studio albums that followed. Taken alone, and more than a decade later, it remains a solitary triumph at the sometimes-irksome crossroads of instrumental metal and post-rock.
But the second disc closes with an acoustic and instrumental take on "20 Minutes/40 Years", the jarring and dynamic Wavering Radiant highlight. It seems intended as a bittersweet farewell, an elegy where slide-guitar miniatures and pensive bass passes serve the reflective mood. But without Turner's vocal frisson and the band's massive swings of momentum, "20 Minutes/40 Years" sounds mostly like a reminder of Days of the New's moment in the late 90s alt-rock sun. More saliently, it's a stinging testament to how powerful Isis could be, how urgent they could feel, especially when compared to "Grey Divide"; counter intuitively, this soft-rock track only rubs salt in the wound of Isis' absence.
Elsewhere, the offerings range from ignorable to interesting: This practice-space version of "Wills Dissolve" sounds exactly like what it is, while similar recording conditions actually enhance this demo of "Carry" by making Turner scream his way from beneath the band's vortex. The second disc's mix of approaches is more rewarding: Originally released on an ingeniously designed and manufactured CD-R attached to a blood-red sawblade, Isis' cover of "Streetcleaner" skips the Godflesh intro and toughens the sound considerably, bass and drums stomping through sheets of noise with maniacal force and precision. Their 1999 take on Black Sabbath's "Hand of Doom" is serviceable, but it effectively offers a reminder that Isis soon applied its gumption to cerebral, and not stoner, metal. Noise guy Thomas Dimuzio captures that quality on his brilliant remix of "Holy Tears", previously issued in 2008. Instead of circumscribing Isis' power, Dimuzio enhances it by adding instrumental layers that recreate the band's sudden surges, like monoliths in fields of little relief. It's the rare heavy metal remix that intuits the band’s ambitions and emboldens them.
But in the end, and in an era of download link wormholes and streaming YouTube content, Temporal is not an essential Isis release. Despite its three-disc bulk, it exhumes too few buried-but-necessary takes and does little to illuminate what Isis did, why they did it, and what it all means. Sure, the delivery and division of these tracks might serve as a vague heuristic for understanding the band. On disc one, they're audacious metalheads sorting through the eccentricities of their own music; on disc two, they're reverent kids covering heroes and before branching out to bend their sound into strange shapes. But that's about it.
Maybe it's too early for proper perspective; perhaps the two years since Isis' official end haven't allowed the band to yet understand its own import or its intrigue. Instead of offering a widescreen and thorough account of their own journey on Temporal, they've opted for a collection of snapshots that are, even if telling, often redundant or trivial. Even though Temporal presents itself as an endpoint for Isis, don't expect it to be their last summary. Isis' music always demanded concentration, framing and, most of all, time. Here's hoping that, at some point, a future set embraces those qualities-- and why they sometimes made Isis so vital.