[5 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As excellent as Isis’s 2006 album In the Absence of Truth was, one had the inkling while listening to the record that in spite of its great merits, and indeed it was yet another high water mark in the band’s illustrious career, the album still felt like it was the sound of Isis taking their slowly evolving, signature sound as far as it could go before coming off as diluted and repetitive. Too late, moaned the more cynical folks in the crowd who were reluctant to accept Isis’s cleaner, more melodic direction, but whether or not you dug In the Absence of Truth, it was more than apparent that the band’s fifth album would have to be something awfully bold if they wanted to remain relevant in a subgenre they helped create and which was quickly becoming stale thanks to hordes of imitators. However, just like the case of Neurosis, those other progenitors of what’s come to be known as, for lack of a better term (and believe me, metal fans love sub-categories) “post metal”, who returned in 2007 with the spectacular return to form Given to the Rising, we all should know better than to doubt Isis’s abilities to continue to forge their own musical path, which their new album proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Theoretically the changes guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner, guitarist Mike Gallagher, bassist Jeff Caxide, drummer Aaron Harris, and multi-instrumentalist Bryant Clifford Meyer bring to Wavering Radiant aren’t very drastic at all, but when comparing the record to the last one, or even the towering trifecta of Celestial, Oceanic, and Panopticon, the difference is staggering. The graceful ebbs and flows between the contemplative and the cathartic are still present to a degree, but instead of using it as simply the basis for their sound, on the new album it’s used more like a tool, brought in to enhance the music instead of simply leaning on it from song to song. This time around, the emphasis is on actual song craft, the quintet embracing dynamics, now adventurous enough to realize that just because you have a quiet part, you don’t necessarily have to follow it with a gigantic loud passage every single time. It’s such a simple idea, but hearing that more even-keeled approach on a track like “Stone to Wake a Serpent”, the end result is so gripping that you wonder why they hadn’t tried this sooner.
One of the most important additions to the album is producer Joe Barresi. In addition to having produced Tool, a band who knows a thing or two about how to make a long song compelling, he’s also partly responsible for the transformation of Norwegian greats Enslaved from black metal titans to progressive rock adventurers on their 2008 opus Vertebrae, his warm, spacious, analog-recorded style a very welcome change in these days of rampant over-compression. And not surprisingly, Barresi’s touch is not very different at all on Isis’s record, the album’s palette sounding much more rich than the band’s past, Matt Bayles-produced work, the overall organic vibe of the album perfectly suited to Isis’s collaborative style, and which was admittedly missing from In the Absence of Truth.
Still, it’s the songs themselves that are the most crucial to Wavering Radiant‘s success, and the seven tracks, six of which typically range between seven and 11 minutes in length, all deliver mightily. Harris’s tight yet fluid groove beats propel the trancelike, almost Tool-esque “Threshold of Transformation”, while Caxide adds expressive bass solos to the languid “Hall of the Dead”. The gorgeous, shimmering “Ghost Key” is dominated by Meyer’s keyboard work, the band’s explorations with melodies feeling a lot more natural than the last record’s more tentative efforts. Turner, meanwhile, alternates nicely between his clean singing and harsher growls, each side never overdone, his vocal melodies, while buried in the mix as usual, nevertheless sounding more confident than ever, especially on the album’s stately standout “Hand of the Host”.
By the time we do get a glimpse of classic Isis, like during the explosion of crunchy riffs and tremolo-picked melodies at the climax of “20 Minutes/40 Years”, the visceral impact is immensely satisfying. It probably will never be regarded in the same light as Isis’s first three albums (the older a metal band gets, the better their early albums become in the minds of fans), but Wavering Radiant exudes a level of grace that could only come from true masters of the sound, further proof that while they played a large role in setting the template, they also reserve the right to reshape it whenever they damn well please.