Published Jan 01, 20061. Isis Oceanic (Ipecac)
"People are tired of the same old shit and they're looking for something beyond fantastical lyrical content and ridiculous bullshit. I think that's why people are turning more towards bands like the Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and, hopefully, Isis," says Isis guitarist and vocalist Aaron Turner on their ascent to the upper echelon of metallic greatness. Their rise has been indelibly cemented in the aggressive music annals by the expansive sophomore masterpiece Oceanic. Since their inception in 1997, Boston's Isis have seen their stock rise exponentially with a string of increasingly heavy but meticulously refined and obtuse conceptual releases that redefined density, artistic heaviness and sonic depth. Their first full-length, 1999's Celestial (on Escape Artist), following a couple of EPs, was an album so texturally thick and gravitationally heavy that few thought it would be surpassed, yet their past accomplishments pale in comparison to the sonic achievement of Oceanic.
Isis (completed by bassist Jeff Caxide, guitarist Michael Gallagher, drummer Aaron Harris and keyboardist Bryant C. Meyer) has created an album that is vast, torrential, serene, roiling, calm, sparse, oppressive, destructive and beautiful. It's also laced with more melodic moments of contemplation and atmospheric explorations, straddling the line between brutality and artistry. "I feel like there's a much greater diversity within each song and within the album overall," Turner says. "Celestial definitely had its strong points, but as a whole, it wasn't as dynamic as Oceanic. This offers a more interesting experience, in that it's not continually bludgeoning and there are actually moments of memorable melody and recognisable hooks, not just repetitive grinding.
"There are only so many directions a heavy' band can go," he continues. "You can either write the same riffs over and over or you can try to do something that expands beyond, incorporating more textural and atmospheric elements, and more melody. As a unit that has been together for a while now, Oceanic is a result of us being comfortable writing together and trying new things. I think with Celestial, we still had this idea that it had to be the densest, heaviest, most crushing thing, and now we realise that we can do that without even trying. While that's still an aspect of our music, we've concentrated more heavily on the melodic aspects, dynamics and song structure."
This evolution isn't a Cave In style departure towards prog rock and major labels Oceanic is, in parts, more crushing and cacophonous than Isis has ever been, a contrast that expands their sound instead of forsaking it. "When we were doing it, we knew that it was going to be different, and that was what we wanted. But it's not like when Metallica changed their logo and cut their hair. Every release we've done has been different than the last, but anybody that followed Isis since the beginning won't see this as a huge departure, but as an extension of what we've done." And what they've done is create the best album of 2002. Chris Gramlich
2. Dillinger Escape Plan with Mike Patton Irony Is A Dead Scene (Epitaph)
Putting the most versatile and unbalanced vocalist on the planet together with the most complex and extreme band in aggressive music raised expectations to an impossible level. Would this EP save music or make heads explode? Well, neither, but it did manage to piss off fans of both and nearly equal the lofty expectations placed upon it. A blur of frenetic extremity and creativity, Irony Is A Dead Scene is a near flawless synthesis of Patton's unorthodox screams, uttering and crooning, with Dillinger's impossibly precise mathematical chaos theory posing as music. With Patton firmly at the helm of this four-song EP, following Dillinger through every permutation, his insane vocal gymnastics and layering starts to dominate, but Dillinger's intricate cacophony of metallic hardcore, noise, avant-jazz, death/thrash, and superb technical acumen ably supports him, even has it drives him, and has never sounded as refined or powerful. If this was a full-length, it could easily have been one of the greatest, most vital records ever in aggressive music. As an EP, it nearly is. Chris Gramlich
3. Mastodon Remission (Relapse)
Mastodon created such a stunning, textured and dense album that it's hard to digest it more than once a month a great thing. Listeners find new elements upon every venture. The band combines two worlds that don't often meet: over-the-top technical flamboyance and tortured-soul exorcisms. Drummer Brann Dailor carries the band with his blinding percussive performance; the man sounds like he has five arms, and those rolls just go on and on. The lyrics are thoughtful and poetic, delivered by passionate, unique and thankfully not "Cookie Monster" vocals. The rest of the band wraps strings, minds and the very essence of being alive around difficult time signatures, haunting dissonance and beautiful melodies. Throughout two-minute grindcore songs, eight-minute suicide anthems and bizarre quasi-ballads, concepts of forgiving and living are offered forth for the listener to ponder. This is one of the best things you'll ever hear within the world of metal. Greg Pratt
4. Burnt By The Sun Soundtrack To The Personal Revolution (Relapse)
Everything a great record should be. Short, brutally fast and incredibly technical, this album blazes through some of the most insanely written song structures the hardcore/metal scene has been exposed to since the release of Calculating Infinity. Ex-Human Remains, Discordance Axis, and current Melt Banana drummer Dave Witte puts his trademark percussive skills to work and leaves the listener amazed with his brand of punishing, unbelievable blast beats and double bass wizardry. Ex-Endeavor vocalist Michael Olender makes his presence felt through his powerful vocal talents, but even more so through his insightful, intelligent lyrics. Focusing on the capitalist consumption cycle and the horrors of the repetitiveness of everyday working life, Olender reminds us that in hardcore, the music is the medium, and it's about time people stopped abusing it. Paul Gresch
5. Floor (No Idea)
For the past ten years, Floor have left behind a legacy of numerous seven-inches with plans to record a full-length that never happened. Early rumblings suggested Eyehategod, Grief and like-minded neighbours Cavity, but no one could've guessed that the 2002 Floor model would actually eschew the guttural screaming that defines this doom/groove sub-genre. "Scimitar" and "Return To Zero" are doom deluxe, streamlined and almost radio-friendly, but "Downed Star" and "Iron Girl" are injected with real vocal harmonies, some almost bittersweet. Some tunes skirt the edge of this precipitously poppy ride, while others heave enough rock to warrant spots on those odd label comps. "Ein (Below And Beyond)" and "Sneech" snort iron filings for a true metal roundup, and the instrumental "[Symbol] Song" oozes forth smothering yet upbeat. Floor do everything and more on their debut full-length, and they pull it off with every ounce of metal integrity intact as Floor is one the most unique doom albums in metal history. Chris Ayers
6. Soilwork Natural Born Chaos (Nuclear Blast/PHD)
Four albums in and Sweden's Soilwork took a calculated risk, drifting further away from the confines of thrash-y death metal and drenching their songs with melody and high-octane groove. It's a tricky thing, employing more clean vocals and keyboard textures, catchy riffs and choruses without diluting purity and aggression but with Natural Born Chaos, they've exploded onto new ground. Devin Townsend's signature intensity blasts through in the big production, and his influence has seeped into Soilwork's whole approach. Lacing tight aggression, smooth licks and electrifying rhythms with a tapestry of melody and emotion, Natural Born Chaos merges into a seamless whole that must be felt to be understood. The world outside could be crashing down, but until the album's over, you just wouldn't care. Laura Taylor
7. High On Fire Surrounded By Thieves (Relapse)
Former Sleep guitarist Matt Pike has made the definitive record of his career with Surrounded By Thieves, a pounding juggernaut. After a long head-scratching minute of silence, "Eyes & Teeth" and then "Hung, Drawn And Quartered" erupt in a flurry of bowel-evacuating groove and relentless drum bashing. "Speedwolf" adds a definite vocal variety to the mix, while "The Yeti" decelerates to half-speed for more creeping doom à la Sleep. "Thraft Of Caanan" is also slower but no less crushing, and "Razor Hoof" (the album's shortest cut at 3:26) sounds like a longer song that's been condensed due to space issues. Pike is stretching out more on his grinding riffs and solos, and the future holds even more promise for this harbinger of doom a prospect that prompted one critic to declare that Pike might be the most metal person alive. Chris Ayers
8. Botch An Anthology of Dead Ends (Hydra Head)
Unfortunately, the title speaks volumes. If there is a bright side to Botch's untimely demise, it is the release of this incredible six-song offering. An Anthology of Dead Ends picks up right where We Are The Romans left off, torturing the listener with thoughts of what the next full-length could have been. Technical, chaotic, hectic, aggressive, and technical at most times, the songs capture the most innovative, interesting, talented and captivating band to come out of Seattle since grunge. Not only do these songs present a portrait of the band's trademark brand of brutality, they focus on Botch's lesser-known qualities, as the album's fifth track, "Afghamistam," would put most devoted math rock bands to shame, and "Micaragua" combines all things sonically devastating to create a track that sets out to destroy even the highest quality stereo speakers. Some things just shouldn't end. Paul Gresch
9. Fiftywatthead Volume One (Death By Stereo)
Formed out of the ashes of Kingsville, ON, stoner rock band Brown Water, the now Windsor-based quartet Fiftywatthead is one of the brightest hopes in Canadian extreme music. Their 11-song debut is heavy with a capitol H. It is the bastard child of Melvins, classic rock radio and noisier indie rock. The band also shares a kindred spirit with Shallow, North Dakota and if you listen closely to album track "f.m.," arguably are writing similar style guitar riffs as well, but Fiftywatthead's twin guitar attack leaves more of a chainsaw effect that Shallow ND's overwhelming pummelling. Word has it that the next Fiftywatt album will be even heavier and more extreme. I'm going to have to hear it to believe it, because this fucker cooks. Sean Palmerston
10. Today Is The Day Sadness Will Prevail (Relapse)
Following their most critically acclaimed release with yet another rhythm section change and a near two-and-a-half hour descent into musical madness may seem too ambitious, but never has an album been so deeply immersed in the emotional turmoil it sought to cathartically release. If In The Eyes of God was "real anger, real hatred," Sadness Will Prevail is unquestionably "real insanity, real psychosis," to the point where it can become difficult to comprehend the emotional breakdowns that litter this double-disc's desolate sonic tapestry. The musical hallmarks of Steve Austin/Today Is The Day's ten-year psychotic musical rampage are present harsh noise rock, frayed electronic constructions, beautiful acoustic laments, metallic drone, desolate artistry and precision hostility and there is just as much avant-experimentation, atmospheric construction and electronic wash as "songs," but taken as a whole, the journey through Austin's frustrated dementia and melancholy is overwhelming in its sincerity. While not as damaging or immediately affecting as past releases, Sadness Will Prevail manages to be Today Is The Day's most ambitious work. Chris Gramlich