Revisiting ISIS’ Oceanic
With Celestial reforming, albeit briefly, it feels like an appropriate time to revisit all the major Isis releases. With the release of SGNL>05, Isis comprehensively completed their scratchy, abrasive phase and emerged with their rough edge sheared off. Oceanic ended up as a calmer, more thoughtful record with a lot more space, a blueprint for a more chilled, introspective post-metal. Prog influences and warm layers abound for an early career high-point and a clear indicator of their next moves.
Whilst Celestial was peppered with dense, oblique themes, Oceanic is a more approachable affair, featuring a clearer narrative outlined in the booklet and fleshed out further in an interview that Turner gave with Scott Kelly. Whilst Celestial’s themes are imposing but somewhat oblique, Oceanic discusses emotional devastation, incest and suicide. The result is still haunting and bleak but more human, less obscured than the insectoid abstractions of Celestial.
The record starts with The Beginning And The End, retaining Turner’s bellow which made Celestial such a daunting listen, giving the record a distinctively metal feel even when it leans towards a lighter, floatier, psychedic experience. Here, Turner’s vocals are bolstered by Maria Christopher’s presence, adding additional texture on the softer sections. Swirling and rising, the comparison to the ocean is obvious from an early stage. The steady pace of the first half of the record is established here, and when the drive of the guitars fades away the washy keyboard drone is more obvious.
This is followed by The Other, where the ferocious vocals hit an early high point. This is a key point where the album shows how much better the musicians work together; Celestial was a triumph of themes, but the instrumentation on Oceanic is a lovely, slow wash of intertwining guitar and keyboard ambience. The drums are especially well-placed here, having stood apart from everything a little last time. False Light drifts towards the light/ dark philosophy as seen on Celestial, then Carry is the start of the psych ambience coming to the fore, condensed slightly from when it was been explored previously. It’s a reminder of how warm and gorgeous Isis could be at their brightest and their most unhinged, able to shift seamlessly between moth modes without sacrificing their own personality. This is explored further in -, an ambient interlude which features gathering trills, reminiscent of whalesong, Oceanic’s answer to the SNGL sections seen previously.
The second half takes a direct turn for the lighter with Maritime, a swirl of psychedelic noise. The break is colourful and soft, the closest to emulating the wash of the titular ocean. This is continued with Weight, a more measured and considered outing. From Sinking is riffier, a more recognisably post-metal track with a clearer architecture, anchored by a deep bassline. The fuzz of Hym concludes the record, taking a more destructive turn just as they conclude things.
Whilst there was a clear distinction between bright and dark previously, here the distinction is blurrier. The instrumental sections are drawn-out rather than snapping straight to being as fierce as possible until burnout. They still manage to work with density and momentum, and the record has a distinctively metal feel through the heavy guitars. Later, with Panopticon, they’d stray a little further from this.
Oceanic feels more mature and better-rounded, a clear development in their style. It’s important that Isis felt comfortable stepping back; the first two records sit nicely alongside each other before Panopticon, which set up its own legacy. Itches were scratched indeed on the record, and sixteen years on the record stands as a solid record, its warmth shining through even when they were dealing with such harrowing material.