With their second full-length under their current moniker, Genova-based heavy rockers Isaak hit their stride. Their earlier-2015 Heavy Psych Sounds split with Mos Generator gave advance notice of some significant growth in their sound since the 2012 release of their Small Stone debut, The Longer the Beard the Harder the Sound (streamed here), but with Sermonize, they affirm more open stylizations and increased penchant for atmosphere, making the 12 included tracks a richer, more engaging listening experience. Remarkably, the band — vocalist Giacomo H. Boeddu, guitarist Francesco Raimondi, drummer/vocalist Andrea Tabbi de Bernardi and bassist Massimo Perasso (who since the recording has been replaced by Gabriele Carta) — accomplish this without giving up the driving sense of heft or momentum that served their last outing so well, and the collection of songs they bring forth is varied, indulging Torche-style major-keyism on “Soar” while doling aggro stomp on “Lucifer’s Road,” a cover of Italian outfit White Ash the central riff of which is worthy of focus.
That cover is one of two on Sermonize, the other being Kyuss‘ “Yeah,” which appears immediately before it on side B, and which, true to the original, is just someone saying the word “yeah.” Clearly Isaak haven’t lost the sense of humor that’s done right by them since they made their debut in 2010 as Gandhi’s Gunn with the album Thirtyeahs (discussed here), something the title of their intro, “Whore Horse” also affirms. Still, they’ve come a long, long way since that first record and since that name change, and most satisfying of all as regards Sermonize is how in command of their efforts Isaak prove themselves to be. There is a sense of purpose to each sonic shift they make throughout, and each shift serves to make the whole of the album stronger. It is the sound of their potential paying off.
Big guitar fades in to launch “Whore Horse,” joined soon by blown-out vocals. Compared to some of Sermonize‘s more straightforward fare, it’s an immediate removal from the comfort zone, and that’s pretty clearly the idea. At 1:41, the intro isn’t much shorter than most of the tracks, which are in the three-to-five minute range — the longest, “Soar,” is 5:30 — but as it moves into “The Peak,” the effect “Whore Horse” has isn’t to be understated in adding context and a feeling of not knowing what to expect to what in many other instances would be a simple desert rock riff. It isn’t here in part because of the production, which plays laid back stoner aspects off of the burl Isaak proffered their last time out, the treatment of Boeddu‘s vocals especially noteworthy for being perfectly balanced with the guitar, bass and drums and for the echo adding spaciousness to his gruff delivery.
The ensuing “Fountainhead” (lyric video here) offers one of Sermonize‘s strongest hooks and begins to reveal Isaak‘s method in terms of their building momentum across each of the album’s two sides. Both “Fountainhead” and “Almonds and Glasses,” which follows, are about four minutes long and quickly-paced, in league with the shorter “The Peak” in moving the listener through an opening salvo in good speed. At the same time, “Almonds and Glasses” also proves more patient, and is instrumental save for a couple of deep-mixed echoing vocal lines, so it marks a change of tactic as well. Call it a half-turn, with “Soar” as the other half. At 5:30, it’s a good deal longer than much of Torche‘s work, and it uses that extra time to let Isaak bring their own personality to a sludge-pop style, moving from a catchy sway into a fervent instrumental push near the end that they skillfully bring to an apex to close out side A with the highlight of the album so far.
“Showdown” must have been a contender to open Sermonize at some point. In addition to similarly-grooving snare punctuation, it shares a quick pace with “The Peak” and a relatively straightforward verse/chorus structure. Why they might’ve gone with one over the other, I don’t know — “The Peak” does work well coming out of “Whore Horse,” where “Showdown” begins almost in medias res — but it functions more than ably to launch side B, which then delves into its two covers in succession. “Yeah” is less than a second long (one can’t help but wonder if they had to pay royalties to Kyuss for its use), and it gives way to the explosive plod of White Ash‘s “Lucifer’s Road,” a cover that provides Isaak with an opportunity to dive head-first into riffy largesse. Unabashedly heavy and somewhat darker than much of Sermonize, it nonetheless fits with the original material around it, “Lesson No. 1” picking up from its raucous finish with a sort of return-to-earth desert rock vibe, choice verse groove and catchy hook, moving into semi-psychedelic swirl in the second half bridge, but making its way back to the chorus to finish out and move into “The Frown Reloaded,” which touches on some of the same ideas as “Soar,” but in a way that’s even more Isaak‘s own, adding more boogie to the upbeat rhythmic thrust.
It’s somewhat buried near the end of the album, but it shows there’s no dip in quality as the four-piece rush on toward the finish line. Maybe “rush” is the wrong word, since neither “The Phil’s Theorem” nor the closing title-track are in any hurry. “The Phil’s Theorem” is a mid-paced groover with standout guitar layering and a mega-chorus that one hopes will be ground for future development from the band riding its riff into hypnotic fadeout, and “Sermonize” itself is a quiet, well-arranged melodic finish, more sentimental and quietly resonant than the flurry of badass riffery preceding throughout much of Sermonize‘s span. Like the album as a whole, “Sermonize” is an encouraging finish, a last-minute show of dynamics that seems to dogwhistle to the listener that Isaak have even more to offer in terms of breadth than they put into these tracks, and if that’s the case, all the better, but the prospects for continued growth should not undercut the accomplishments Isaak make in these songs, which play to genre with an edge and presence all their own.
Tags: Genova, Heavy Psych Sounds, Isaak, Isaak Sermonize, Italy, Sermonize, Small Stone Records