Isan: Meet Next Life
Morr Music

Fans anticipating Meet Next Life, the newest work from Isan (Integrated Services Analogue Network), should be forgiven for expecting some major change in the group's style. It's been over two years since 2001's lush Lucky Cat and Salle D'Isan and, in the interim, the group has appeared on Blue Skied An' Clear, Morr Music's Slowdive tribute, and last year released Clockwork Menagerie, a collection of rare older tracks that suggested a kind of summing up. The Morr compilation in particular hinted that a new direction was imminent, as Antony Ryan and Robin Saville surprised their following by adding vocals to their contributions. But any expectation of change can be retired as Meet Next Life carries on with the idyllic sound the duo perfected on Lucky Cat. In fact the absence of change is what surprises most, although the compositions are so stunningly fashioned that it's churlish to complain. What is new is the enriched instrumental palette which now includes acoustic guitars, percussion, and glockenspiels, the latter an especially effective addition as they enhance the ethereal ambiance of the group's signature sound. What is it that distinguishes Isan from others in the melodic electronica genre? Supreme sophistication, for one, as evidenced by the sensuously beautiful “One Man Abandon,” a glistening, reverberant soundscape of stately themes. Other standouts include “Snowdrops and Phlox,” whose atmospheric showers of texture rain down upon this elegiac piece's gorgeous melodies, and “Birds Over Barges,” a nuanced opener of acoustic guitar picking and mournful bass melodies. Not all pieces are placid, however. The acoustic percussion and glockenspiels of “The Race to be First Home” build up a nice head of steam, while “Gunnera” rises anthemically as layers of synths swell to symphonic proportions. All twelve pieces are exquisite jewels, perfectly crafted with nary a misstep to be heard. If there is a weakness, it's that Isan tracks are so impeccably produced that passion and spontaneity are largely sacrificed—abandon is certainly not a word in the group's vocabulary. Isan pursues its own path, seemingly indifferent to trends, the sole artistic compass their inner voices. Meet Next Life may not be a radical departure, but it's a delectable sonic oasis nonetheless.

January 2004