Thursday, January 15, 2009

The overimportance of being earnest


Ah the joys of a long weekend. Lucky for those of us who couldn't make the Melvins-and-Mike-Patton-curated ATP Nightmare Before Christmas that two of the bands personally chosen to appear decided that coming across the pond for a solitary couple of days wasn't enough, so extended their stay to take in a handful of additional dates together. The gig was originally booked for the Regal, but given my most recent experience of that particular venue I'm actually glad of the late switch - even despite my well documented dislike of this place.

Shine a light Torche are heavy. And they just seem to get heavier and heavier, slower and sludgier. Yet there's also the curious anomaly of sweetly sung vocals rather than guttural belches, which makes the overall effect like having an enormous wrecking ball swung into your head by Josh Homme. Enough to make you fear for the lives of any retired wrinklies of their native Sunshine State who have the misfortune to find themselves in their path.

The focus of visual attention, as is so often the case, is drummer Rick Smith, who also bashes skins in an outfit called Shitstorm. Displays of energy and exuberance aren't usually the done thing in doom bands, so Smith's jack-in-a-box routine, eventually performed in nothing but a pair of briefs, is all rather novel. The band's second LP, the evocatively titled Meanderthal, found a home in the UK on Mogwai's Rock Action label, and with friends like that their wrecking ball may yet make quite an impression.

It's rather fitting that the headliners, signed to Mike Patton's Ipecac label, should have chosen to pass through Oxford on their whistlestop UK tour, given that its more pretentious residents insist on referring to the Thames as the Isis as it passes through the city. Reflect on the namesakes for a while and a surprising number of similarities between band and river come into focus (well, perhaps enough to hang a gig review on, anyway). Both have been around a long time, are internationally renowned and carry with them a weight of significance. Both are associated with depth and power. And both plot a twisting, turning course.

Over the years, and largely thanks to their 2002 record Oceanic, Isis the band have become synonymous with post-metal (indeed many credit them with having invented the genre), a leftfield approach to making intensely heavy music that shows an appreciation for the value of giving lulls and passages of ambient drift room to breathe in amongst the skullcrushing riffs. (Of course, they didn't spring up suddenly in a vacuum, themselves drawing inspiration from Neurosis in particular before going on to influence Pelican, Cult Of Luna and Russian Circles amongst others.)

The term of description preferred by Aaron Turner, the band's frontman and founder of Hydra Head Records, is "thinking man's metal", and he's also been quoted as claiming: "metal in general has long been unjustly maligned as solely the province of knuckle-dragging meatheads". That's as may be, but therein lies the root of my dissatisfaction with tonight's show. I find the best I can do is admire from afar; out-and-out enjoyment never really creeps into it. There's too much chin-stroking; too much frowning (sure there are bands I like whose seriousness also verges on the ridiculous - hello Sigur Ros! - but somehow the LA outfit's steadfast refusal to crack a smile at any point irritates); too much patient build-up that, while no doubt technically impressive to those intently studying these things down at the front, loses my attention too easily.

Ultimately peers, friends and tourmates of theirs like Mogwai and Tool do something similar better, with greater subtlety, emotional impact and force. Tonight at least, neither the workout Isis administer to the brain nor the workout they administer to the ears truly satisfies. I expected to be bowled over immediately, and yet here I am speculating that perhaps "thinking man's metal" is a contradiction in terms for a good reason. Metal is by its very nature visceral, it's immediate, it's brutal - in other words, it's defiantly anti-cerebral - and perhaps it's best left that way.


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