Although they've been putting out a steady slew of releases since their debut album Beautronics in 1998, I hadn't been following them as closely as they jumped from label to label, finally landing (and seemingly finding a great fit) with Morr Music. Clockwork Menagerie is the latest release for the duo, and although it doesn't consist of 'new' tracks, most people won't have heard the majority of them unless they've been hardcore collectors of the group since the start.
ISAN stands for Integrated Services Analogue Network, and given the sound of the group, it's actually a fairly fitting (if a bit sterile) title. Whereas much of todays warm electronic music purrs out from laptop soundcards and fancy new equipment, ISAN is a group that favors the sound of vintage instruments. Like Boards Of Canada (whom they actually share quite a few things in common with musically), they coax lovely sounds out of the analogue instruments of years gone by. There are analogue purists everywhere you go, but in the every expanding (and accessible) world of computers, they're becoming less and less. Another interesting thing about the duo of Robin Saville and Anthony Ryan is that they both work on tracks independently of one another, but release them under the same group name, keeping the mystery of who wrote which tracks.
The 14 tracks that make up this release were released between 1996 and 1999 on various 7 and 10" releases on such labels as Earworm (where Fridge and many others also released early tracks), Bad Jazz, and Wurlitzer Jukebox. Whereas their Beautronics album was comprised of both longer tracks and short, interlude type tracks, this compilation is comprised completely of longer tracks which in turn filled out their respective sides of a record when originally released. Musically, the release is a bit darker in tone than some of their newer material, as well as slightly more stripped down. "Autolung" opens the disc with layers of soft drones over which quiet electronic chatter gurgles while "Betty's Lament" sputters along with a clicky beat and a lovely, repetitive melody.
Later on, they move into even other areas of sound, as "Comb" drifts a light melody that recalls early Aphex Twin ambient work while clicks and glitchy noises chirp behind it. Likewise, "Damil 85" starts out with a slightly harsh beat and melody before a squiggly, giddy one drifts in and overtakes each. "Remegio" will have BOC fans jumping for joy with distorted vocal samples of kids singing, a toybox melody, and a subtle beat that snakes around through the track.
There's a lot to digest over the course of the nearly 70 minute running time of this disc, and most of it is quality material. Whereas many would probably see the antiquated instrument setup that the group uses as a hinderance, ISAN embrace the old instruments and make them do their bidding. As the title suggests, the music might conjure up some sort of weird, Alice In Wonderland like feel (the group definitely works a touch of woozy psychedelic into their electronic sound), it's a great collection of tracks from a very consistent group.