Reassessing Perfection: Isis' 'Panopticon' At Ten

Aaron Turner dissects the metal act’s greatest LP…

Sometime in 2004, likely around the midnight hour, I laid myself out on my living room floor, slightly dented by a night on the ales, and put on Isis’ ‘Panopticon’ for the first time.

The band’s third album – released through Mike Patton’s Ipecac Recordings – had been anticipated personally after 2002’s phenomenal ‘Oceanic’ LP, and there was a definite feeling that the ostensibly metal act, just relocated from Boston to Los Angeles, was approaching a breakthrough. Not necessarily in mainstream terms, but definitely in the sense that they were going to elevate their genre, exploring possibilities at the fringes of heavy music. ‘Panopticon’ was going to be massive, surely.

And that’s precisely how it sounded to me, on that first listen, as the light bulb above danced through blurred vision in half-time to music that crunched and cracked, writhed and roared its way through seven tracks which took the listener – me – on the rarest journey: from a place of great expectations to a reality where most of them had been met. Some listens later I slapped a 10/10 score on it for Another Popular Music Website.

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Isis, ‘In Fiction’, from ‘Panopticon’

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The album remains a favourite to this day – I can put it on anytime and I’m back in that rented Crouch End flat, the (now) wife away for the night and the upstairs neighbours – jobbing comedians now relatively established on the TV panel show circuit – also out, judging by the lack of stomping noises coming from the ceiling. A memorable first experience, repeated too many times to count. It’s one of my perfect tens, an LP that transcends its place in time to echo through my collection with the same power it exhibited on day one. And speaking to the band’s frontman, Aaron Turner, it’s clear that he sees it as a vital release in the Isis canon.

“It was certainly a tipping point,” says the man whose devil-like bellow, now heard on a variety of other projects, can strip paint from the inside of any venue. “We’d been slowly gathering momentum over the years, but it seemed with ‘Panopticon’ in particular there became a higher level of public awareness of Isis. It wasn’t just underground people or hardcore metal people who were into us anymore. I wouldn’t say we were branching out into the mainstream, but things definitely felt less secular, in terms of the people the music was reaching.”

The positive reception of ‘Panopticon’, coming straight after the high scores for ‘Oceanic’ and some striking live performances in support of said second LP, was naturally gratifying for its makers. And so, too, was the record’s connection with listeners beyond their previous reach. But then, Isis never set out to deliver just one sound, to remain within a niche, as their catalogue showcases across its five studio albums.

“We wanted to play with a lot of different types of band, to ensure that our audience was not really narrow,” says Turner. “I feel that we were on an arc already, before ‘Panopticon’, in terms of our creative trajectory. That was as steady as our rise in popularity, as I don’t see us having a point in our career where we took a very drastic shift. It was a very slow-growing thing, that changed and evolved over time.”

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Personally, ‘Panopticon’ was the last Isis record that I felt fully invested in

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‘Panopticon’ was followed in 2006 by ‘In The Absence Of Truth’, a set which further evidenced Isis’ growing audience by charting at six on the US Billboard Top Heatseekers chart – and the band’s final LP, 2009’s ‘Wavering Radiant’, cracked the Billboard top 100 and went top 20 on the UK’s rock chart. But despite sales figures looking more impressive with each album release, it was with their third that Turner feels they truly peaked – as a band capable of achieving their goals without compromise.

“Personally, ‘Panopticon’ was the last Isis record that I felt fully invested in – or that I felt that we, as a band, were as unified as we could be, given we’re five individuals. After ‘Panopticon’, there were a lot of things that happened for us personally and collectively that changed the music, in a way that I don’t necessarily feel was as satisfying.

“It’s hard for me to put it into words without going into a 45-minute tirade about it, but I think that early on, our differences were enriching, in terms of how our contrast of ideas complemented each other, and how the different things that we brought to the table when it came to write music actually helped the process. Up to and through ‘Panopticon’, that was the case. But when we got to ‘The Absence Of Truth’, and ‘Wavering Radiant’, those differences were pulling so strongly in opposite directions that… Well, it didn’t make the music more schizophrenic, necessarily, but it became harder to find common musical ground, on which we were all comfortable, or happy, or satisfied playing.

“This is only my own perspective – I’m not sure how everyone else feels about this. But it seemed to me that, in a certain way, ‘Panopticon’ really was a high point. After that I never felt as fully invested in, or simply as excited by, what we were writing, as I did up to that point.”

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Isis, ‘So We Did’, from ‘Panopticon’ (this version from the DVD, Clearing The Eye)

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It’s unsettling to hear one of the architects responsible for such a favourite record of mine identify the flaws in the band’s DNA, but Turner doesn’t stop there. With 10 years having passed between the record’s release and now – a 10th anniversary remaster is released on April 28th – he’s able to hear aspects of ‘Panopticon’ in a more objective fashion, detached from too much deep, personal involvement. “I was never fully satisfied with how the record sounded,” he says, “and that had something to do with how we worked as a band, with the individual sounds that we had. I think there were ways in which Isis operated very well, on an intuitive level, but I also think we had a problem communicating with each other directly, about what we liked and didn’t like.”

He continues: “I have a feeling about a lot of Isis stuff, where I wish we’d communicated more openly so that things that we were never truly satisfied with could have been dealt with differently – if not fixed, then at least discussed. I felt like the actual production of the ‘Panopticon’ suffered, maybe partially because of people having different aesthetic ideas going into it, as we didn’t communicate what all of our wants were, very specifically. But it’s a record, one of many, and some of the things that I don’t love about it are what makes it a record made by humans. Nothing will ever be perfect, and some of its idiosyncrasies are the things that make it special, or unique.”

Unique is certainly what ‘Panopticon’ is – although it bears traceable hallmarks of punk and metal records before it, the combination of sky-splitting riffs, slow-turning textures and Turner’s primal chords has only ever sounded like Isis. From their 2000 debut LP ‘Celestial’ right through to the band’s split in 2010, never did Isis ape another act to any extent where the constituents could be identified as the work of anyone else. Their twists were their own, and their influence is palpably felt today.

“I definitely hear things from time to time where an Isis influence is evident,” Turner confirms. “At times I hear music that seems directly impacted by what we were doing, and I find that interesting and gratifying. I made music in a public forum because I wanted to share it and have some impact on other people, in the way that so much music impacted on me, and still does. I think that anyone who puts their music into the public forum is hoping to connect with people, and have them find a meaning in it, and maybe beyond that take inspiration from it. I think that’s a great thing to be aware of, and it’s really nice that our music was able to do that for some people.”

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The more ways we have to put ourselves out there, the more isolated we become

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Another standalone factor of ‘Panopticon’, separating it from the rest of the Isis catalogue, is its very clear conceptual construction. Thematically, it concerns itself with privacy issues, with monitoring of the public by unseen eyes, with a state of constant surveillance. Its title is taken from a form of prison devised in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher considered one of the founding fathers of utilitarianism. His blueprint for this prison complex, laid down in 1791, shows cells arranged in such a way that their occupants can be constantly supervised from a central observation tower. With the album recorded before the global advent of Facebook and Twitter, what does Turner make of its themes in relation to today’s addiction to social media?

“If anything, the themes seem even more relevant to me now. The themes were interesting at the time, and the lack of privacy, with us putting ourselves into the public domain, was just starting to take off. Now, it’s just become part of normal life. Some of the stuff that I was interested in then – things that could be destructive on an individual or collective level – I think is definitely appearing now, in terms of the way that the public consciousness is so fragmented. In some ways, the levels of communication that we’re capable of are so much more superficial now, even though we’re putting out a lot more of ourselves into the public forum.

“It seems that the overwhelming amount of communication – all the text, the images, the videos – actually devalues communication. The ideas that are being expressed through all of these channels can be so mundane, and so superficial. It’s harder and harder for people to reach deeper levels of insight through these forms of communication, with each other. I still don’t know what to make of it all.

“The more ways we have to put ourselves out there, the more isolated we become in a way. It’s funny to see how [social media] takes people completely out of their present moment. You see people sit down to a meal together, and they’re not even speaking to each other – they’re just on their phones. And that’s the kind of isolation we’re talking about: instead of connecting with the humans around us, we’re somehow doing this really convoluted process of connectivity. But it’s more about having a voice in a world that’s even more illusory than the one we might already be participating in.”

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Isis, ‘Backlit’, from ‘Panopticon’ (this version from the DVD, Clearing The Eye)

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Turner admits that it doesn’t quite feel like a decade ago that he helped to deliver what turned out to be Isis’ definitive recording, and is open about what it means to him today, compared to then. “I was consumed by the process, and thinking really deeply about every aspect – from the music to the lyrics to the artwork,” he says. “I don’t know if it necessarily qualifies as obsessing, but the album was certainly the focal point for me, at that point in my life.”

“Now, all the things that seemed so important then, they don’t seem so important anymore,” he continues. “Not to underplay the album’s value, as I believe it’s an important record for Isis and for me, personally, in my own discography, but it’s now another record in a long succession of records. I’ve realised its flaws, as well as the good aspects which are just part of the process of making records. So yeah, I’m more detached from it now than I was then, which makes it easier for me to appreciate it, rather than just delve into the deep scrutiny of it that I did then.”

I know that I appreciate ‘Panopticon’ a great deal in 2014. Playing it during the making of this piece has just reaffirmed how much it means to me. If you’re someone who has only recently been turned onto rock music that dares to drift outside of conventional structures and stretches itself over lengthy arrangements confident of their direction from the get-go, a fan of albums meant to be heard in a single sitting without skipping between tracks, then it’s a record that I can unreservedly recommend. Perfection, personally, at the time, and a bona-fide 10-outta-10 cornerstone of my record collection today, I wouldn’t be without out.

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Words: Mike Diver

‘Panopticon’ is reissued by Ipecac Recordings on April 28th. Find the slightly out-of-date Isis website here. Listen to 'Panopticon' in full via Deezer, below...

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