ISIS – The Red Sea (2018 Hydra Head edition)

3 out of 5

Label: Hydra Head

Produced by: Kurt Ballou, Mike Hill

Maybe I came to ISIS at the wrong time. Perhaps if I had heard them first, before travelling through plenty of other hardcore music, they would’ve hit harder, in the same way I question if I had heard The Beatles or Led Zeppelin before discovering other music – surely influenced by those acts in some way – whether or not their records would be part of my collection; if I would “like” those acts, instead of just acknowledging their impact and shrugging my shoulders at them.

Then again, I was subjected to tons of Beatles and Zepp via radio and whatnot way before I began buying music, and I suspect ISIS was jamming at the stores at which I shopped before other groups from the same general DNA – Cave In, Botch – grabbed my ear. So the fact that I hear the same somewhat disaffected and generic underpinnings in one of ISIS’ early EPs – The Red Sea – that I hear in their latter stuff is maybe telling: that this is just how the group lands with me.

The Red Sea is still an interesting comparison point to the band’s remaining catalogue, though, as – especially when paired with the cassette demos, included on editions of the EP such as this Hydra Head rerelease – it’s easier to hear the group taking shape, transforming from something very indebted to the heavies from the scene (Neurosis, for example) and rather typically chugga-chugga into the more experimental and expansive version of themselves they’d become. And this transition point, which is absolutely distilled in the title track, is compelling, making use of Turner’s generic growl and open-ended but convincingly thematic lyrics as a juxtaposition to the music, which takes the core angry and thumpy sound and gives it more space, more mood. More impact. I can get behind that. But the penchant for dressing that up with more meaning and import than I feel it inherently has is here too, with samples from David Lynch’s hotel series giving us that highfalutin tone, and opener Charmicarmicat Shines to Earth – though Melvins-inspired – is an introductory track that edges on noise but doesn’t enhance the music that follows, especially; it’s thematic filler. Middle track The Minus Times is reminiscent of the cassette demos that follow – four to five minute bursts of typical hardcore; impressive in terms of energy and power, yes, and probably hype-worthy if you’d caught the act live in the early days, but still falling into that – for me – ISIS bucket of not having any real standout elements.

For “casual” fans, I’d say the title track of The Red Sea is surely worth it; for those with only a need to own one or two albums, though, this version of ISIS hadn’t settled on its identity quite yet, planting seeds here that would grown into Celestial and beyond.