Isis - Celestial
Hydra Head
Progressive Sludge Metal
11 songs (51:52)
Release year: 2000
Isis, Hydra Head
Reviewed by Goat
Archive review

Renowned American Post-Metal posterboys Isis kicked off their impressive career all the way back in 1997, but it was three years later that the band proved their worth with debut full-length Celestial, a towering monument of crushing riffs. It may lack the strange beauty of later efforts and even the refined shifts in dynamic that made Oceanic the classic it is, but as a first album Celestial is immense, as forward-looking and epic as the title suggests. It was actually one of my first ever Metal CDs bought – whilst browsing the second-hand store which awoke the inner steel in me with an Iron Maiden album earlier, my eye was caught by the artwork, a strange childlike figure floating in eternal stillness beneath the surface of the sea. I bought it immediately (for only three Pounds, if memory serves; a bargain!) and that was the first indication that Metal can be mood music as much as something to headbang to. It’s for this reason that I chose the European edition’s artwork to go along with this review instead of the American version – each of us has his own personal favourite albums that helped to kick-start this obsession with Metal that we all share, and Celestial is one of mine.

The album’s a good mixture of riffs and ambience, switching from one to the other expertly. Opening with SGNL 01, a mysterious, rhythmic message being tapped out by unknown fingers, Celestial (The Tower) soon elbows its way forward, deep Doomy riffs backed by odd electronic effects that build hypnotically into an edifice like the tower of the song’s title. Partway through it breaks down into near-quiet, the electronics coming into their own, as gentle strums and echoing notes provide a strangely captivating experience. Glisten follows, a more energetic and Punky track that similarly switches into unsettling calm, Aaron Turner’s vocals going from animalistic growls to throaty singing.

I love particularly how the album keeps to the central theme, almost one single long track. Swarm Reigns follows on from Glisten with only a few electronic effects to separate the two tracks, for example, the downtuned riffs pummelling constantly. It’s easy to see where Mastodon got their shtick from, certainly. SGNL 02 takes a slightly odder path than the album intro, reminiscent of a satellite faintly picking up a TV signal, then Deconstructing Towers comes stomping in, tribal drums and feedback squalling like Neurosis on a very bad day indeed, before fading into unaccompanied acoustic strums. There’s a sense of melody throughout the heaviest moments, the Proggy Collapse And Crush just one example, and whilst CFT (New Circuitry And Continued Evolution) may be a reworking of an earlier musical theme, in terms of the album as one long piece of music it’s great. Final track and outro Gentle Time and SGNL 04 are an excellent way to end the album, the former the most emotional as the vocals take on a distant, strangled tone begging for help whilst the riffs grind furiously, the latter continuing the mystery. Playing all the SGNL tracks together, you can hear them follow on from each other, and the SGNL>05 EP released soon after this album is a fantastic companion, the signal going manic as discordant piano is added to the mix. There’s plenty more riffage, too, and all in all it’s a wonderful, more experimental outro piece to the album.

There’ll probably be outrage about this in the forums, but in terms of best-Prog-Sludge-bands-that-aren’t-Neurosis Isis have always been better than Cult Of Luna for me. Isis are more capable of constructing songs rather than mere heavy-light-heavy rumbles, something that Cult Of Luna only discovered fairly late in their career, and albums like Panopticon have a beauty that’s more human and approachable than, say, Salvation’s cold, cruel Space-Metal. Besides, the Americans got there first, Celestial out a good three years before Cult Of Luna’s self-titled debut. Not that I dislike the Swedes, far from it, but I prefer Isis, something that’s only confirmed the more I listen to fantastic pieces of music like Celestial. It might not be as good as later albums from Isis, but for a debut this is fantastic stuff, held back only by the knowledge that better music awaits around the corner...

Killing Songs :
One long song, really, but Celestial (The Tower), Glisten, Swarm Reigns, Deconstructing Towers, and Collapse And Crush are all great
Goat quoted 84 / 100
Adam quoted 79 / 100
Other albums by Isis that we have reviewed:
Isis - Wavering Radiant reviewed by Adam and quoted 87 / 100
Isis - In The Absence Of Truth reviewed by James and quoted 92 / 100
Isis - Oceanic reviewed by Goat and quoted 92 / 100
Isis - Panopticon reviewed by Daniel and quoted 87 / 100
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