Isis’ Aaron Turner In ’02: Oceanic Is ‘The Best Material We’ve Ever Written’

Last week saw the publish of a post drawing possible connections between what many consider to be Isis’ ultimate masterpiece, Oceanic, and one of the most important novels to come out of the 20th century, Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” Keeping the Oceanic momentum going, here’s an interview I conducted with the band in October 2002, just weeks after the album came out.

A crisp Saturday evening in Silver Lake, CA – the “boonies” of Los Angeles, if you will. Sitting outside the 260-capacity club Spaceland. It’s about 8:30, 20 minutes before other humanoids will start showing up to witness one of the most startling – and startlingly overlooked – bills of the fall: hip-hop alchemists Dälek, Joe Preston’s one-man mindfuck (a.k.a. Thrones), MC5 revivalists Bad Wizard and grind-heavy juggernauts Isis.

Aaron Turner materializes from the venue like a paramilitary trooper springing out of a chopper. His face lacks expression, yet his eyes exude a razor-thin focus. Make no mistake about it: This is a man on a mission.

The tactful Turner – Isis commander, Hydra Head Records guru and painting/graphic design virtuoso – eases into interview mode (still no smiles, though) as we saunter over to a nearby 7-11. After trading some surface-level remarks about the residentially located venue, he reveals that he’ll be relocating to the Los Angeles area in a few short months.

“Why did they book us all the way out here, when there are so many other places to play in L.A.?” he asks. (Because it’s half as cheap as Sunset Boulevard and here no one’s hell-bent for leather.)

One can’t help but feel in advance the nostalgia that might envelop Turner soon after his future arrival. There is no more Hollywood Dream. And Isis will only be one of a gazillion bands, many of which are sucked down and stamped out on the pavement before the match is even extinguished.

Yes, Turner and his brothers-in-arms will say goodbye to Boston’s never-ending all-ages debacle, alternately stifling and bitter weather and satellite-city insecurities. But they will also leave a growing fanbase and one of underground rock’s most tightly knit and varied communities – a multi-label partnership called Initech that also included Big Wheel Recreation (now in Los Angeles also), Tortuga, Doghouse and Bridge 9.

But all this matters about as much as a snot-soaked hanky when compared with the real topic at hand: Oceanic, Isis’s scintillating new record that is, hands down, one of the top three heavy rock albums of the year.

Oceanic is more than just an album, in fact: It’s an entity in and of itself. Not unlike the Egyptian goddess of the same name, Isis exacts a guardian-like presence throughout Oceanic, guiding the listener through rancorous barrages of one-note fury, then into more gentle waters where the dark, masterful gradations turn into sparkling, illuminated whitecaps. Tool would shit its pants to this.

“We get bored with our songs pretty quickly, so we always try to progress,” says Turner, as we coop up inside his cramped van. “We all believe that this is the best material we’ve ever written.”

Hell yeah. Children of hardcore punk (former affiliates include Cast Iron Hike, Cable and others), Isis has consistently challenged itself and its audience with every release, from a pair of initial EPs (1999’s The Red Sea and 2001’s SGNL>05), up through two subsequent full-lengths (2001’s Celestial and this year’s Oceanic).

Despite the band’s youth and point of origin, comparisons are often drawn to Neurosis, a veteran San Francisco troupe that has stretched the borders of every loud music configuration known to man: neo-industrial, aggro-metal, trance, et al.

In reality, Isis shares a common bond with numerous other hardcore alumni – Mogwai, Sonic Youth and Fugazi – that grew tired of the ilk’s musical and political constraints. Instead, they space-warped to new realms of novel abstraction, clinging all the while to the unwavering exactitude and intensity of hardcore. Oceanic is the culmination of such a seemingly career-long development, even though its authors are still in their 20s.

“We try to associate with bands that will force us to constantly challenge our boundaries,” he says, citing Dälek’s morbidly warped sounds in particular but also the proliferation of acts that Initech has spawned: Jimmy Eat World, Cave In, Scissorfight and The Cancer Conspiracy, to name a few.

Isis albums, curiously enough, have been issued through Second Nature, Escape Artist, Neurot (home of Neurosis) and, now, Mike Patton’s Ipecac imprint. Why isolate Hydra Head and Isis releases from one another?

“I never want the two to overlap, for fear of Hydra Head bands will think that they’re getting lesser treatment than Isis,” Turner said.

Admittedly, one element that will probably turn off some of rock’s most open-minded listeners is Turner’s brutal, range-less delivery of wholly indecipherable lyrics, strewn over the album like scraps of metal. It’s a tough swallow at first, but blends into the backdrop soon thereafter.

“I worked especially hard on the lyrics this time around,” he says.

Oh, so those are actual words being spoken?

“Well, they’re for me, really. People can read the inside text if they choose, which shares some of the lyrics and provides an overview of the idea.”

Show time is closing in, so we step out of the van and head back to the venue. Eyeing it with suspicion, Turner wonders, “Don’t they have noise-level issues, it being so residential here?”

Yeah, they’ve received a few warnings lately.

He glares at the club one more time, before heading in the door. “Well, it looks like they’re going to get another one tonight.”

Originally published as “To Boldly Go …: Isis Charts New Waters” in Rockpile #87, December 2002.

For more on Isis, check out “Isis’ Oceanic: Mystery Revealed?” and “Best Albums of the 2000s.”

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