ISON’s Cosmic Drone Conveys the Beauty and Terror of Outer Space (Review)
We live in an age of growing uncertainty and fear, to put it mildly. Hatred, racism, and radical nationalism are on the rise. Religious extremism of all stripes bleeds the world dry of charity and grace. Our increased sense of autonomy, buffered by social media echo chambers, has increased our inability to (want to) understand people on other sides of the sociopolitical spectrum. Great swaths of people across that spectrum have been neglected and mistreated for too long. Our leaders claim to revere life but willingly support policies and actions that harm some of the weakest and most embattled lives on the planet. Truth no longer matters; instead, our leaders spout “alternative facts” (i.e., lies) while giving no thought to their corrosive effect.
What does any of this have to do with the Swedish duo ISON? Formed two years ago by Heike Langhans (Draconian, LOR3L3I) and Daniel Änghede (Crippled Black Phoenix, Hearts of Black Science), ISON is not a political band. They sing no anthems decrying fascism and racism. You’ll hear no agitprop in Cosmic Drone’s five songs. Instead, you’ll find songs contemplating the vast cosmic depths and distances, as experienced by lost satellites, space travelers, and stellar particles while they drift through the universe’s blind indifference.
Musically, ISON blends together elements of metal and shoegaze into what’s come to be called “blackgaze.” While those genres may seem like they have nothing in common, their aesthetics both emphasize overwhelming the listener with massive walls of sound. (Shoegaze may do it a bit more delicately than metal, but go listen to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or Ride’s Nowhere again if you disagree with me.)
But unlike some of blackgaze’s most preeminent artists, like Deafheaven or Alcest, ISON’s music isn’t intense and overwhelming because it’s fast and ferocious. Rather, it’s because it proceeds at an inexorable pace full of both beauty (e.g., Langhans’ gorgeous voice) and darkness. “Lost Satellite” immediately sets this tone as Langhans sings “Drifting onward to nowhere, invisible/They won’t find us out here” amidst doom-laden guitars and eerie synth atmospheres.
The shimmering guitar notes emanating from “Atlas“ ‘s opening moments may sound like vintage shoegaze à la Slowdive’s Just For a Day. But everything else about the song — Langhans and Änghede’s ghostly vocals, the glacial rhythms, lyrics like “I’ll navigate through the dark I feel in you” — proceeds at an unstoppable crawl, like starstuff slowly being sucked down into a black hole’s maw.
The EP’s finest moment is the nine-minute “RedShift,” which starts off slowly but gains momentum until it’s a juggernaut. The song’s title references the astronomical phenomena used to determine the universe’s expansion. That, combined with lyrics about separation and universal dissolution, make for a sobering listen — but it’s nothing short of gripping thanks to the nigh-operatic heights that Langhans and Änghede reach for. Everything builds to a Mono-esque climax, with the guitars and drums churning and swinging away while Langhans cries out “This beautiful destruction/The end of all in sight/To find a new beginning/We will destroy the light.”
If Cosmic Drone has one weakness, it’s the duo’s decision to incorporate space-related samples into their songs (e.g., the Carl Sagan snippets on “Travelers”). I understand why the duo added them; they emphasize the songs’ space-related themes. But they’re unnecessary and obligatory. Sagan’s speech about how we’re all “the product of a grand evolutionary sequence” adds nothing to “Travellers,” which closes out Cosmic Drone in stunning fashion. Or, to put it another way, ISON’s music is plenty vast and grandiose enough on its own; it needs no help from the famed astronomer to get that effect.
So again, what does all of this have to do with the world’s growing social and political uncertainty? Well, as I found when I watched Doctor Strange on election night, ISON’s Cosmic Drone serves as something of a perspective modifier. While the songs occasionally seem to imply a materialistic view of the universe that I don’t subscribe to, the music’s vast, awe-inspiring scope still does something very useful: it reminds me that, in the grand scheme of things, earthly affairs are not nearly as important as I might think they are. Or, as I wrote in my Doctor Strange review, “It’s both humbling and comforting to realize that the world is not about you and your agendas — that indeed, our desires are dwarfed by the sublime, terrifying wonders of creation and existence.”
None of this is to suggest that we should become despairing or apathetic, or that we shouldn’t get involved and fight for truth, justice, mercy, and compassion. (Nor would I ever suggest that’s what ISON is suggesting with their music.) But sometimes, it is beneficial to have our perspectives re-adjusted and broadened. ISON just happens to do so with some gloomily beautiful, evocative music that conveys both the sublime beauty of the spheres as well as the crushing alienness of the interstellar expanse.
According to their Facebook page, ISON are in the process of recording new material; presumably, they’ll be delving into the cosmos once more. Needless to say, when they do, I’ll be coming along for the journey as well.