It doesn’t really matter what Isis is defined as anymore. The band called it quits in 2010 after the release of a final studio album, the remarkable Wavering Radiant, and has ridden off into the proverbial Boston sunset. They’ve left behind an imposing legacy since commencing in 1997 and delving into the multiple facets of undefined soundgasms is a rewarding treat.
Enter Temporal, a compilation of unreleased tracks, demos and altered versions. Consider it the cracking of the Isis vault. There are two discs to this box set and a DVD. For the purposes of this review, only the two CDs are on tap.
The first disc is largely comprised of demos, representing the band’s probing take with lots of flexible jams and big blocks of instrumental rumbling.
“Threshold of Transformation” is up first. This nearly 10-minute demo comes from the Wavering Radiant record and begins with a dynamic vocal statement from Aaron Turner. Of special note is Aaron Harris’ drumming; the mix is clear enough to allow for serious analysis of exactly what he’s up to on the kit. The hammering fills and cymbal hits are sublime, building pressure as the song progresses. Other first disc highlights include an alternative demo of “Wills Dissolve” from 2004’s Panopticon. The meager mix highlights the musicality of the piece and brings it down to earth, providing a garage-meets-sludge sense peppered with Harris’ snare.
The nearly 17-minute “Grey Divide” closes out the first disc. Melodically graceful, this wave of sound and fury signifies damn well everything Isis is about. The composition is bracing and thoughtful, pulsing onward and collecting more force with every fleeting moment until it roars with beautiful life.
The second disc of Temporal presents a few different musical avenues. The deafening cover of Godflesh’s “Streetcleaner,” which can be found on Isis’ Sawblade EP, is a good start. Harris’ drums pound ruthlessly, while Turner doesn’t make his presence felt until nearly two and a half minutes in.
Bassist Jeff Caxide shines with “Hand of Doom,” a Black Sabbath cover that packs a lethal groove and builds to a sticky and grimy pinnacle. As with many of the tracks on Temporal, Harris’ kit is front and center. After the unyielding din, Temporal cleverly wraps with an acoustic version of “20 Minutes/40 Years.” The Wavering Radiant piece manages a desert-kissed groove. The subtle tempo change is a cool touch, especially as it tempers the arrangement and leaves space for yet another soundscape in its stead.
Word around the campfire is that Temporal may just be the beginning of what could be a surge of Isis demos, rarities and other goodies. That’s good news for hardcore fans, but it also provides an opportunity for more casual listeners to dig into what this band is about. The diverse approaches are worthwhile even for those on the outside looking in, as they present a clearer picture of what an artistic legacy really ought to sound like — warts and all.