In his seminal work, Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault describes the panopticon – a tower pierced with windows on top that opens out onto the inner side of a space where observation is necessary, such as a prison, asylum, school or hospital. Foucault explains that 19th century social reformer Jeremy Bentham designed the panopticon to arrange “spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and recognize immediately.” In this way, any individual within the given space can be seen from the panopticon, but does not see his observers. The power that emanates from the panopticon is therefore both visible and unverifiable – visible in that the inmate, patient, or student can always see it and imagine the observation taking place from its heights, yet unverifiable because the subject will never know whether or not he is really being observed.
In 2004, the groundbreaking metal band ISIS co-opted Foucault’s interpretation of the objectifying power of Bentham’s invention and the fiction of perpetual surveillance that such technology asserts as the thematic of their album Panopticon. Ten years later, ISIS has re-issued a re-mastered addition of Panopticon complete with some new packaging (including an updated cover), and a 12-page booklet created by ISIS’ bandleader, singer, and guitarist, Aaron Turner.
My purpose for taking on the lofty task of discussing this particular album amounts to pure nerdy-fan tribute to the highly significant role that both ISIS and Panopticon have played in the development of my musical tastes over the past ten years. I discovered the album (and ISIS) at about the same time as I was forced to read Foucault as a graduate student in New York City. By the early 1990s, I had pretty much given up on heavy music since the demise of bands like Metallica with their sudden dedication to pop music accolades, the distasteful hyper-masculinity of heavy music front runners Pantera (although in retrospect much of their music was excellent), and the inorganic tendencies of the nu-metal crossover artists.
After living out the 90s in Philadelphia immersed in the city-influenced sounds of acid jazz (later re-dubbed “nu-funk”), King Brit and Josh Wink spinning funk and hip-hop mash-ups around town, and the poetic sounds of urban performers like Ursula Rucker, my return to heavy music didn’t occur until being exposed to something that travelled way beyond the cheesy lyrics, tough guy posturing, and creative decay that metal had become in my mind. Having given ISIS albums like Celestial and Oceanic a few spins (as well as Red Sparrows and Mogwai) in the early aughts – thanks to music geek JonRobertson – I sensed a sea change had occurred within some genres of heavy rock and metal, but it wasn’t until traveling on the A Train late one evening listening to the gradual rhythm section buildup followed by explosive riff-laden release and complex time changes of Panopticon’s second track, “Backlit,” that I realized I was back. Equally appealing to me was also the provocative thematic present in Panopticon expressed through its title, lyrics, artwork, and actual music.
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In 2004, Turner conceived the concept of Panopticon as an expression of resistance against the loss of privacy and deterioration of personal freedom rooted in the political and technological environment present in America’s early aughts. Turner fundamentally describes Panopticon’s theme as exemplifying the plight of the objectified – the targets of surveillance and disciplinary observation – the unwary victims of the loss of privacy that the new age of technical surveillance ultimately spawns. In spite of how Turner describes his intent, the spaced-out riffs and musical forays present on this album speak much more to observation and discovery than paranoia and loss of freedom. There is certainly tension on the album brought upon by the mellow build-ups powered by Jeff Caxide and Aaron Harris’ rhythm section at the outset of songs like “Backlit” “In Fiction,” and “Syndic Calls” that ultimately release themselves with thundering guitar riffs and Turner’s unintelligible vocal. This build-up and release structure satisfyingly maintains itself throughout the album, with a respite from the pattern only occurring precisely in the middle with the steadier “Wills Dissolve” (until of course the song’s final minute or so), as well as the heavy kickoff of opening tune “So Did We.”
The lyrics from tunes such “Backlit” and “In Fiction” most directly address the experience of objectification that the power of the panopticon imposes. With lyrics culled directly from sections of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish,” Backlit’s” message describes the experience of the individual as “always object, never subject…[the] gaze never ceases, the light is upon you ‘til life in you ceases.” The song “In Fiction” likewise proclaims that “under the mortal sun, we cannot hide ourselves.”
Yet a strong contradiction arises through these verses – although an unnerving tension exists throughout the albums compositional structure, I have always viewed the collection’s thematic as an expression of the observer’s perspective, the panopticon’s source of power, and not the objectified observed. The overall airiness of the songs contained in those moments where tension gives way to commanding riffs suggest power, liberation, and freedom rather than the subjection that Turner/Foucault’s lyrics express.
Turner himself has stated that the thematic does not fit the musical tone by describing the album as possessing an “optimistic” vibe. The original cover of this album even suggests such a perspective through the view of landscape from a significant distance above the earth, signaling that the tones of the album provide a wide reach for perspective, exploration, and discovery. The cover of the reissue, on the contrary, grounds the thematic into what Turner had always described the subject matter of the album to be, which suggests the loss-of-privacy and paranoia with which Turner was concerned during the creation of Panopticon.
Ten years later, there is at least no doubt that the music of Panopticon and ISIS is relevant to the progression of metal and hard rock, especially considering the aggregate of acts that have turned gazey and introspective in their approach. Yet the messages pertaining to privacy and freedom which Turner addressed lyrically in 2004 present a stark irony if one considers the extent to which individuals now strive to objectify themselves by making their subjectivity constantly available to the public through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It seems that society has both embraced and become the panopticon.
Nate Jones is middle-aged, rapidly balding man with chronic bad breath who writes about culture, identity politics, and sometimes music. His published work includes pieces in Ready Player None: A Ready Player One Fanzine, Old White Dudes’ Quarterly, various want ads seeking vintage Atari 2600 cartridges, and his blog entitled “My Heaven is 1973.”