When I was planning this series, I knew this would be the Big One. Isis’s Panopticon is the jewel in their belligerent crown, a measured, cohesive, erudite record that caps off their early development. For those of you following this series who were looking forward to more – and naysayers who deny that anything good came afterwards – there’s plenty to look forward to after this. But for so many fans, Panopticon is the moment where Isis’s vision was best expressed.
Moving from the swirling psych bubble of Oceanic, Panopticon is detached, concise and coherent. Gone is the whirl of noise, replaced with complex, emotively heavy guitar riffs. The drums take the same space as Oceanic, calmer than Celestial but a little better-placed, more restrained. The vocals are transformed here; smoother, still a little gravely but a stronger clean voice than the shakier version previously. The main difference is the change of shape of the guitar riffs to complex shapes and patterns, allowing the tracks to cover more ground. They still deal with light/ dark, but where lightness and space before were floaty and formless, here they’re better-defined.
Opening with So Did We, the record flits around its complex new song structure, rising and falling in energy sharper than before. Punctuated by Turner’s staccato growls, the song hits early before laying off for a bit, coming back with some of Turner’s best softer vocals to date. The track is still a slow boil but all the parts are more focussed, a little more in the vein of progressive metal. Backlit continues this theme, opening with a softer build peppered with lovely bass fills before a triumphant vocal swell. This is the point where the album really strikes as warmer and more mature, the band equally comfortable as a complex metal band and as a softer wash, maintaining their exalted feel through both modes.
In Fiction features The Riff, perhaps the most recognisable single moment on the record, a straightforward but commanding flourish. It’s important that the record remembers to focus on simple moments like this; the complexity is a welcome addition to the general aesthetic but rarely sticks out like this, and when these moments arise they re-energise the tracks. Wills Dissolve, a little looser, features a lot of the ambience which they’ve explored before; after the excitement of In Fiction, it certainly feels like they’ve done the work to chill out with a looser track. Again though, the riff here is a standout, prominent guitar feature, offset by lugubrious, often understated instrumentation.
By Syndic Calls, some more space opens up for some of the floatier sounds experimented with on Oceanic; towards the end of the song the guitars trill like birdsong as the track grooves along. It’s an odd break for them but not unfamiliar for Isis to have a long break in intensity as they build back up to a long, heartfelt section of Turner’s cleaner vocals. Altered Course, an instrumental, features some bass and noises from Justin Chancellor; adding an additional voice to an already complex record can sound risky but here takes the form of additional textures on the low end. These are scratchy, a pulse that runs throughout that allows the guitars and keys to float on top. Grinning Mouths dips back to the harsher vocals and heavy riffing, building up to a grand crescendo; Isis always were a metal band experimenting with a different palette, and the build up to the sudden cut-off solidifies this.
The record for so many is the triumph of reason over passion; gone are the high-energy bellows and the long breaks after the catharsis hits fever pitch. Gone too is the moribund, lightly horrifying narrative and emotional wash of Oceanic. The subject material, mediating on Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a prison where inmates are constantly observed, lends itself to a more reserved aesthetic.
For many, this intellectual element is peak Isis. And in many ways this is a more coherent version; focussing on intellectualism, turtleneck-Isis has always been threatened through their career – the wild, abstract themes of Celestial and the narrative musings of Oceanic. Paring away the passion leaves them with space to geek out, whilst expanding their sonic palette.