Isotope 217
Photo: Chris Toliver / Courtesy of Thrill Jockey

Isotope 217’s ‘The Unstable Molecule’ Still Sounds Like the Future 25 Years Later

The Unstable Molecule is unstable in all the right ways. Isotope 217 play modern jazz, post-rock, and funk but never fully commit to these genres within any given bar.

The Unstable Molecule
Isotope 217
Thrill Jockey
22 July 2022

Sometime in the 1990s, music hit the future and stayed there. The Unstable Molecule, the debut album from the Chicago-based supergroup Isotope 217, is just one example of an album that hasn’t aged a day since it was recorded. Glass-half-full types will chalk this up to the band’s collective prescience, while those less charitable will point to modern music’s 30-plus years of stagnation. From the Spice Girls to Radiohead and everything in between, the mid-to-late 1990s was a time when everything just refused to sound “old”. This trend (or lack thereof) is highlighted again as Thrill Jockey re-releases The Unstable Molecule on its 25th anniversary. The main difference is that now you can buy it on vinyl.

Isotope 217 were a busy little band back in the late 1990s. Between 1997 and 2000, they recorded three albums and an EP before splintering off into their many ongoing projects. When you get right down to it, Isotope 217 were a cross between Tortoise and the Chicago Underground Orchestra, with guitarist Jeff Parker bridging the two camps. Percussionists John Herndon and Dan Bitney came from Tortoise, while cornetist Rob Mazurek brought trombonist Sara P. Smith on board by way of his Chicago Underground ensembles. With Matt Lux on bass, Isotope 217 settled into place and let their jam sessions eventually mutate into an album.

As expected, The Unstable Molecule is a bit contemporary jazz and post-rock but doesn’t pledge a strong allegiance to either. Sometimes it blissfully floats among the genres’ signposts without delving too deep. Then there are other times where it’s as straight-up weird as it’s funky. It’s a brief enough album to get to know. With six songs, it barely clears the 31-minute mark. But when taking deep dives into the Chicago scene with all the jazz and instrumental rock it has mustered, The Unstable Molecule comes up again and again as an important benchmark. If you’re still unacquainted, then the Better-Late-Than-Never adage is more appropriate than ever, considering that “old” music still sounds pretty “new”.

“Kryptonite Smokes the Red Line” begins The Unstable Molecule with a strutting rhythmic foundation and a melodic pattern that passes among three instruments before resolving. Herndon and Bitney solo over the melody while getting periodically drenched in echo. “Beneath the Undertow” has the horn line of mid-century post-bop but lays it overtop a light slice of funk from Lux and the drummers. In the throes of Mazurek and Smith’s cadences, their downbeat and the rest of Isotope’s downbeat turn into two completely different things. “La Jeteé”, a track that Parker would go onto record with Tortoise in 1998 and by himself in 2021, begins life on The Unstable Molecule. Here, it sounds like a lost standard from the 1960s, when loungey guitars and vibes were hip bachelor-pad stuff. Smith’s solo is smooth, minimal, and maintains the soft mood conjured by the band. 

“Phonometrics” gets the second half going with a funky start. The figure shared by Parker and Lux could have been lifted from the Brothers Johnson or the O’Jays. It may be named after a term coined by Erik Satie of all people, but “Phonometrics” is probably the most straightforward song on The Unstable Molecule. “Prince Namor”, the following track, is the opposite. Meandering well beyond seven minutes, this is The Unstable Molecule at its least stable. As Parker picks out a gentle but unresolved chord, Mazurek and Smith play a textural role in the mix as all else turns into soft feedback. Smith guides the haze with a somber solo, but the mix is just too stubborn to coalesce into anything resembling jazz-rock. Instead, the ending is sampled, chopped up, and slowed to a halt. “Audio Boxing” wraps up the album almost as if “Prince Namor” never happened. It’s short, funky, and to the point. The only unorthodox thing about it is the final seconds where Mazurek and Smith sustain their notes after the rhythm has dropped.

The Unstable Molecule is unstable in all the right ways. Isotope 217 can play modern jazz, post-rock, and funk but never fully commit to these genres within any given bar. Even when the music is at its funkiest, as it is on “Audio Boxing” and “Phonometrics”, there always has to be a strange little something extra going on that even George Clinton himself probably wouldn’t have thought of. If Isotope 217 are close to letting their Tortoise side dominate the track, Mazurek and Smith help root the music in an earlier era. Spend enough time with The Unstable Molecule, and all these competing traits will become so enmeshed that you won’t care who’s doing what and why. No wonder Isotope 217’s debut has remained a Thrill Jockey favorite. Not only has it not aged, but it also continues to thrive.

RATING 8 / 10
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