Friday, July 29, 2011

Faces of Metal: Isis and The Sword

Warp Riders
Before I go on about Austin-based band The Sword, take a look at that cover art.  I began to notice Warp Riders about a year ago on prominent display at Waterloo, and there is no way that a self-confessed prog-rock and sci-fi geekboy like me could resist at least giving it a second look.  Usually, a superficial encounter with a CD like this begins and ends quickly: a quick scan, a smirk, and a cynical dismissal.  About a month later, though, I overheard some discussion from the music-savvy contingent in my Zen study group endorsing the album All signs, as the Magic 8-Ball used to say, seemed to point to “yes.”

I wouldn’t call The Sword prog, by any means, but I still can't say I was disappointed.  Although they obviously don't take themselves too seriously, for those of us that remember metal before blast beats and grunted vocals (which have their place, mind you) they are a breath of fresh “retro-metal." 

Now, I do not claim to be an expert in the complex history of metal and the nuances of its subgenres.  There are lots of very dedicated fans with way more knowledge than me, and I certainly know better than to cross that insane bunch.  In my superficial experience, though, it seems that the face of metal has changed a lot in the past thirty years.

For example, in 7th grade I took a music appreciation class from the choir teacher at Bedichek.  During one of our “show and tell” sessions, one student brought a Metallica album - Ride the Lightning, if memory serves.  When the song was over, he was grinning like a crazed Cheshire cat while the majority of the class sat in mortified silence and I, probably wearing a Hall and Oates concert T-shirt, felt totally assaulted in the soft, squishy core of my middle school being.

These days, Metallica is virtually easy listening, even before their 90s sell-out phase.  People sing along with Battery like the way we used to sing along with RoxanneWay before Metallica, however, really, really loud blues bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath laid the foundation of early metal, and this is where The Sword is coming from.  For those in the know, it is nearly impossible to listen to the riff-driven, bluesy, and melodic approach of Warp Riders without thinking of these classic pioneers.  Although it has moments of post-thrash flavor and post-glam accessibility, more myopic fans of current metal may not admit The Sword's wider relationship to the genre.

Wavering RadiantBy going back to its roots, Warp Riders has also helped me to remember what it is I like about metal.  Just in time - there is an impressive spate of releases by some of my favorite metal artists this fall, and my attempts to get my ears tuned back in to the expressive qualities of heaviness has been met with cynical apathy.  Almost like magic, though, and much to the chagrin of my wife, getting The Sword in play has opened up Isis’s Wavering Radiant, an album I have been trying to crack for the past few weeks.

Part of my initial issue with Isis was their obvious penchant for Tool’s cavernous atmospheres and their not-quite “cookie monster” death metal vocals.  In my opinion, this style loses its impact when used exclusively.  Isis does employ both clean and dirty vocals, but I am not quite convinced that they struck the proportion between the two on the nose.

While they might not have had Tool’s mega-chops, from an instrumental perspective Isis seemed to have a lot going on.  In interviews, the band admitted that their music was a bit impenetrable, so who am I to question their expertise?  On Wavering Radiant, their integrated keyboards and noticeably melodic bass support unfolding layers of chugging guitar riffs, often to explosively intense effect.  There is, however, a structural trap in this approach, in which the music meanders about from riff to riff with little cohesion within each piece.  Isis seemed to dodge this bullet, though, which allowed the album to hold my interest even before Warp Riders came back into the mix, despite my reservations.

There are clearly stylistic differences between the two, but The Sword and Isis both seem to fit under the broad category of “metal,” a genre which, like “rock” and “pop” and “jazz,” has become incredibly fractured.  I feel, though, that they are different manifestations of the same root ideas planted by Sabbath and Zeppelin - monolithic guitars, machine-gun drums, and often cryptic lyrics - but cultivated through several decades of innovation.  My personal current trendsetters Opeth and Mastodon have upcoming releases in the fall, which will probably further splinter the traditional idea of metal.  In my superficial opinion, however, that is why they are so enticing.

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