Mostly Metal: Isis vs. Mastodon

As you might read in the print edition of this week's Press, the experimental metal band Isis will be at the Meridian tonight. All of Isis' albums since 2002's Oceanic have explored similar territory: long, unhurried songs that blend doom-metal with the noodly, spacey guitar work characteristic of post-rock.

Isis' albums emphasize texture over riffs, and are heavily intellectual in theme; most, if not all, of them are concept albums, based around elevated concepts such as the philosophy of Bentham and Foucault or Islamic mysticism.

The point is basically to play metal stripped of the elements that ostensibly define the genre: speed, violence, thematic nihilism, heaviness. Hence the term "post-metal." Isis, along with Pelican (also playing tonight), are more or less the poster children for post-metal as it's most narrowly defined, and they're joined by a cohort of similar bands, a number of which, such as Red Sparowes and Russian Circles, are directly associated with them.

Isis' new album, Wavering Radiant, is very good, probably their best, and yet it had the misfortune to see release just after another metal album with an esoteric concept and long songs: Mastodon's Crack the Skye. Mastodon are the standard-bearers for a different trend in metal delineated as much by geography as by aesthetics.

This "movement" has no label, but it consists of bands from the Deep South, mostly Georgia and Florida, that play midtempo metal with elements of thrash, hardcore, post-rock, Southern rock, grunge, what have you; notable bands that fit this description include Today is the Day, Kylesa, Torche and Baroness.

Why do I call the timing a misfortune for Isis? Well, compared to post-metal, the music made by these Southern bands can sound downright conventional; they play around much less with texture and structure, and their songs tend to be riff-oriented in a pretty traditional way. But the flipside is that their music "rocks" a lot more.

Isis is a very serious band, and while Crack the Skye is a serious record too - it follows a complex story arc involving time travel - it delivers a much more enjoyable listening experience, in part because it is informed stylistically by the sense of fun that marks the Southern bands in general and Mastodon in particular.

Mastodon, "Divinations"

Wavering Radiant sounds stilted by comparison. Isis makes a pretty big statement by controlling their music so tightly and dispensing with things like guitar solos, and they're an innovative and interesting band. But Mastodon's records are explosive and insane and awesome.

I think this holds true both down deeper into the respective scenes - put Torche and Today is the Day up against Pelican and Kayo Dot and see if you don't agree - but interestingly, even the difference in the way the bands market themselves: Isis once played at the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art; Mastodon's last gig in Houston was at the Sam Houston Race Park opening for Slipknot.

Fascinatingly, these two branches of experimental metal share the same ur-band: Neurosis, who, like Mastodon, expanded the vocabulary of metal by including elements of other genres to a greater extent than most previous bands, and, like Isis, "subverted the metal paradigm" by making metal that was contemplative and texture-oriented.

And here, the division between the two schools starts to appear largely artificial, as all of these bands are part of the larger world of "experimental" metal, which gathers in everything from Boris to Celtic Frost. That's what constitutes "post-metal" defined most broadly and usefully: metal that is in some way not metal, and which enriches the genre as a result.

It's worth mentioning as well that Aaron Turner of Isis runs Hydra Head records, which has put out bands from all across the spectrum. So this isn't like the Crips and Bloods or something.

But I find it interesting that the most riveting music in the post-metal world, at least in my opinion, sounds, in terms of style, relatively conservative compared to bands which are more innovative formally but maybe not as much fun to listen to. Post-rock, to my mind, is analogous, in that post-rock bands that "rock," like Don Caballero and Maserati, are more fun to listen to than bands like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You Black Emperor, who are perhaps more "post."

The one big exception that I can think of for post-rock is Tortoise, who made some really unique and innovative music that is stylistically completely alienated from rock and formally innovative, yet also really fun to listen to. I'd like to hear what the Tortoise of metal would sound like, if such a thing is even possible.

Something Mike Patton-related, maybe? Estradasphere? Fantomas? Secret Chiefs 3?

Isis, Pelican and Tombs play 8 p.m. tonight at Meridian, 1503 Chartres, 713-225-1717 or

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Daniel Mee