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Heretical Metal

Isis heads east in a tribute to an Islamic mystic.

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Isis | In the Absence of Truth (Ipecac)

Metal is in thrall to power, and on their past couple records Isis gave voice to their devotion with music as radiant and exalted as a celestial palace--serene, forbidding, beautiful, and of course enormously, crushingly awesome, it was like a love letter to the omnipotence of a revealed God.

But on In the Absence of Truth, to be released on Tuesday, God will not show His face--this is the God of the mystery cult, perverse and multifarious and corrosive to certainty. Like its predecessors Oceanic and Panopticon, the album is serene in some of its broadest gestures--the songs average seven or eight minutes, and long stretches are almost ritualistically repetitive, slowly accreting new instrumental layers without altering the core pattern. But here the structures defy logic, and the music swarms with unsettling permutations and startling embellishments.

The band's fondness for nonstandard rock meters shows up in lots of slippery threes and sixes that resist a straightforward backbeat, and the songs frequently hit trap-door shifts in tempo and density. Most audibly, the austere minimalism of Panopticon has been shattered by a storm of percussion--rushing, pattering, galloping, even churning with the steady thunder of a double kick (a first for Isis). Drummer Aaron Harris makes sparing use of his hi-hat and often plays his snare clean, without the strainer, so that his kit sometimes sounds like the massed hand drums of a Sufi trance ceremony.

All the album's departures from the established Isis vocabulary--distant, dispassionate vocals, glassy keyboard swells, guitars that move between brittle, icy single-string figures and monolithic distorted chords--reference the music of the Middle East and environs. At the close of "Over Root and Thorn," gulping bhangra drums thread together triple-feel chunks of bottom-heavy riffing and synthesized desert-wind F/X, and several tracks foreground keening faux-Arabic melodies that border on Indiana Jones sound-track exotica. Altogether the album sounds like a tour through the ruins of a labyrinthine city 7,000 years old, buried for centuries under slowly shifting sands--the kind of place where you can expect to be torn apart by invisible claws in broad daylight. And if you run, you'll just round a corner and come face-to-face with a pillar of fire wielding four enormous golden scimitars (cf the last 70 seconds of "Dulcinea").

Front man Aaron Turner pronounces mostly vowels when he sings, and his lyrics for In the Absence of Truth weren't yet on the band's Web site at press time. But "Firdous e Bareen," an instrumental track, provides a clue about the flavor of mysticism in play--it shares its name with the paradisial garden reputedly maintained by Hassan ibn as-Sabbah, an 11th-century missionary of the esoteric Nizari sect of Shia Islam, for the indoctrination of his Hashshashins. It's unclear whether hashish was involved, whether "Hashshashin" gave us the word "assassin," or whether Firdous e Bareen even existed, but the Old Man of the Mountain (as Hassan was also known) has long exerted a magnetic pull on countercultural types--it's tempting to interpret Turner's invocation of an Iranian schismatic as an oblique comment on the Bush administration's foreign policy, but it's more likely a nod to the philosophies of William S. Burroughs, Hakim Bey, and Robert Anton Wilson.

Hassan's name is also attached, possibly apocryphally, to the quote "Nothing is true, everything is permissible," which the band has been tossing around in its promo materials. It sounds like nihilistic heavy-metal hedonism, but it's better understood as an expression of antipathy toward absolutism and fundamentalism--not so much the denial of a proper route as the refusal to recognize a fixed polestar. Present-day Nizari, big into social welfare and economic development, opened girls' schools in the early 80s in remote areas of northern Pakistan.

Appropriately enough, the song "Firdous e Bareen" treads on an orthodoxy of its own. Its foundation is a percolating pattern of programmed percussion, like ripples overlapping on the surface of a pool in the rain; atop that the trap kit marks time like a heavy eccentric pendulum, guitars interlock in spangled webs, and a synth unfurls ribbons of dirty iridescent noise. Honestly there's not a damn thing metal about it.

In fact, if you don't like waiting three, four, or even six minutes for the distortion pedals to come on, skip this album entirely--gratification isn't just delayed but fraught with difficulty. The music shares the dense ornamentation and monumental scale of antique Islamic architecture, and it's hard to appreciate its obsessively, almost microscopically detailed surface without losing sight of how mind-blowingly huge it is. It's a bit like the grand dome of the famous "imam's mosque" in Esfahan, Iran, 170 feet high but covered to its topmost reaches--where no human eyes can see--with the precisely repeating loops and brambles of an intricate mosaic arabesque in turquoise, gold, and ivory.

In the Absence of Truth represents Isis's biggest evolutionary step yet, and in making it they've become almost hermetic. Like the mosque in Esfahan, the album points to the infinite and unknowable. Each song takes you so far, and by such a tangled route, that by the time you reach the end it's nearly impossible to remember how you got there. Only one thing seems certain--it wasn't by following a star.

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