I'm going to see the final New York Isis show tonight. (They're playing Brooklyn tomorrow night, but because I ride NJ Transit, I can't go to shows in Brooklyn—can't make it back to Penn Station in time to catch a train home—so Brooklyn shows don't count, in my mind. Which makes it all the more annoying when bands I want to see only play Brooklyn, and not Manhattan.) It'll be my third time seeing them.
I first saw Isis live a decade ago (October 15, 2000, to be exact), opening for the now-defunct Seattle band Botch at the now-defunct venue Brownies. I was there to see Botch; their final full-length, We are the Romans, was one of the most amazing records I'd ever heard, mixing metal, hardcore, and crazy guitar solos that sounded like an exploding Nintendo game into something that was, at that time, pretty new. It would, of course, turn out to be massively influential in the coming years; there was a stretch there where if you paid enough attention to certain subgenres, it was hard to find a band not blatantly cribbing from Botch, or Cave In.
I'd heard Isis's first full-length, Celestial, before coming to the show. (My friend Gordon ran Escape Artist, the label it came out on.) It was a sort of sludgy industrial-doom record, very clearly influenced by early Godflesh, but with a greater focus on hypnotic, repetitive riffing. They almost seemed like they wanted to lull the listener into a trance—at a low volume, under the right circumstances, the album could put me right to sleep. I liked it, though.
The show was completely different from the album. I mean, yeah, they were playing songs from it (and from their earlier EPs Mosquito Control and The Red Sea, which at that point I hadn't heard), but there was an element of exploration that was absent from the recordings. At one point, the loud guitars and pounding, looplike tribal drums gave way to a duet for theremin and didjeridoo. I came away surprised and really impressed. I'd heard something really new.
Isis got bigger and bigger as the years went on, becoming a mid-sized cult act and poster boys for "post-metal," a term that always came off to me like the people using the term considered metal something to be evolved out of. Like Botch and Cave In, they became a touchstone for younger bands, with critics attaching the shorthand name "NeurIsis" to a subgenre that seemed rooted in imitation of their work and that of Neurosis. I liked their second album, Oceanic, even more than Celestial, and the double disc of remixes, Oceanic: Remixes/Reinterpretations, was great. But the two albums after that, Panopticon and In the Absence of Truth, seemed boring and gray to me, like they'd run out of ideas and were falling back on habitual stylistic gestures. Panopticon in particular just felt like a rehash of Oceanic. Here's the repetitive, trancelike guitar riff; here's the roared verse and crooned chorus; here's the tribal drumming. Their music was so resolutely un-hooky, so focused on cumulative effects rather than individual moments of catharsis, that listening to it was like walking through a fog bank. And their visual style—abstract imagery and a generally impersonal, the-artist-is-not-present vibe—only served to distance me even more from their work. I felt like they were going out of their way to sound like one big roaring thing, rather than a group of people making music collectively, and as someone who likes small-group jazz and rock bands that prioritize interaction, I was having trouble maintaining interest.
I went to see them a second time in 2007, for their tenth anniversary tour, with Jesu opening, and was bored to the point of annoyance by both acts. I left early. So I'm curious what the feeling will be like at tonight's show. It's a kind of pre-emptive nostalgia, obviously—Isis announced their breakup immediately before the start of this tour, and bandleader Aaron Turner has postmortemed the band's catalog online. But Isis's music doesn't lend itself to celebratory exultation, so an "Irish wake" atmosphere is unlikely. I'm kind of thinking it'll be vaguely somber, as the band plods through an hour and a half or so of looping, hypnotic songs that I can barely tell apart. (I tried listening to one album a day this past week, to re-familiarize myself with their catalog, but gave up after the first two days.) Granted, the band's 2009 studio album, Wavering Radiant, was a comeback of sorts, with a newly organic and progressive-rock-informed sound, but the songs still aren't singalongs or anything. So I guess it'll be up to opening acts the Melvins and Totimoshi to bring the actual rock, and Isis will be giving the whole thing "event" status.