Friday, October 09, 2009

Music Library: Isaac Hayes, Isis, Islands, It's OK

Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul (1969), The Isaac Hayes Movement (1970), To Be Continued (1970), Shaft (1971), Black Moses (1971), Joy (1973), and Isaac Hayes At Wattstax (2003). The first time I ever heard Isaac Hayes' version of "Walk On By," I was driving home from work in rush-hour traffic, but I was so floored that I had to pull over until the song was over. It seemed like The Perfect Song, a mix of soul, r&b, funk, heavy psychedelia, unbearable tension, and sweet release. It's one of my all-time favorite tracks. The album itself is amazing: four tracks, the shortest just over five minutes, the longest just under nineteen, all with Isaac Hayes's oddball voice, a deep and seemingly blunt instrument that carries shadings of hurt and hope and tenderness, and the Bar-Kays (the Stax session band that wasn't Booker T & the MGs) tossing out this weird blend of so many different kinds of music effortlessly. Hayes followed this formula with his next two albums. The soundtrack to Shaft - well, who doesn't know The Theme from Shaft? - has the same personnel but a different feel, one looking forward into funk and disco with many more instrumentals. Although there's some knockout material here, it's easily the most tedious Isaac Hayes album in my collection. Black Moses synthesizes the earlier psychedelia with Shaft-style dance music and is clearly meant to be the man's magnum opus, although, to my ear, it can't quite knock Hot Buttered Soul out of that slot. Joy is Hayes's last solo album in this style before he went on to work on more disco-oriented material. Isaac Hayes At Wattstax is the document of his performance at the 1972 Wattstax festival (as introduced to the crowd by the Rev. Jesse Jackson!), which rules. Stax never released it for whatever reason, so it languished in the vaults until the early 00s.

Isis - The Mosquito Control EP (1998), The Red Sea EP (1999), Celestial (2000), Sgnl>05 EP (2001), Oceanic (2002), Panopticon (2004), In The Absence Of Truth (2006), In The Fishtank 14 (with Aereogramme, 2006), and Wavering Radiant (2009). Isis plays a version of metal that is often called "progressive metal," which seems to mean that they often click off their Ibanez Tube Screamers and play loose, heady post-rock constructions that are more like Sigur Rós than Slayer. When I looked up their entries on Wikipedia, I learned that each album has a complicated mythology, which is quite in the vein of 70s prog-rock, although I can't make out more than a word or two of the lyrics since lead singer Aaron Turner usually sticks with death-metal cookie-monster vocals. I'm sure that these vocals provide continuity with the metal genre for Isis, but I gotta say that they are my least-favorite aspect of this music. The best thing I can say is that the music is so gorgeous and vital that I can usually tune them out to the point where they seem like an unimportant aspect of the sound. But when Turner sings in a, y'know, regular voice, it improves everything for me. This is one of the main reasons I am and will always be a metal dilletante: I think cookie-monster vocals are as silly as corpsepaint. So, the music: it pretty much breaks on Oceanic. The EPs and album preceding Oceanic sound like the band is trying to find something that's their own. They sound a lot like Neurosis and Jehu to me (although I understand that this is achronological, because before Jehu, there was Godflesh, which is what I would undoubtably be comparing them to if I had heard a lot of Godflesh). All of this is to say that they were experimenting with longer metal songs with complicated time signatures and lots of electronics in the sound. But starting with Oceanic, Isis began shifting the dynamics in a different, more post-rock, way, going for a sound that relied less on pummeling the listener into appreciation than building the music from quiet, trance-like repetition to heavy time-shifting riffage, drawing a surprising connection between the two sounds. I think the pre-Oceanic album and EPs are mainly for metal fans, but the later work has quite a bit of appeal beyond the genre. And I'd be hard-pressed to say which of the post-Oceanic albums is my favorite. Each has a lot going for it in a slightly different way than the others. The Fishtank EP is my least-favorite of these, but not by much. I think Wavering Radiant is the most accessible to non-metal fans, and I think it will be on my year-end best-of list.

Islands - Arm's Way (2008). I like the first song "The Arm" (and I like the sole Unicorns album that I have), but this album is exhausting and not in a good way. I tend to either really like Montreal bands (godspeed you! black emperor, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra And Tra-La-La Band, Wolf Parade) or be mostly indifferent to them (Arcade Fire, The Dears), and this one falls more into the latter camp. All of these bands share a tendency to overstuff songs and (if they use vocals) overemote while singing, but I seem to think that's more forgiveable with the post-rock of godspeed you! black emperor or Thee Silver Mt. Zion than with the more traditional rock bands. Go figure!

It's OK - "Wishing." Another track with a mystery about where I acquired it! This band includes one of Redd Kross's former (and maybe current) guitarists, and it's a cover of a Flock of Seagulls song. Beyond this, my meager attempt to Google some answers has failed.


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