ISIS RETURN WITH CONFUSING RESULTS ON “WAVERING RADIANT”
The stuttering riff that opens both “Hall of the Dead” and Isis’ new album Wavering Radiant recalls the openers of the band’s two best tracks: Celestial’s title track and Oceanic’s “The Beginning and The End.” And yet, in true Isis fashion, once the riff and song itself slowly unravel, “Hall of the Dead” establishes a personality of its own, somehow both a return to form after the misstep of 2006’s In the Absence of Truth and a unique statement in itself. It has the Isis hallmarks – Aaron Turner’s gruff bark (and droning clean vocals), Aaron Harris’ sturdy yet subtly inventive drumming, reverb-drenched guitars either filling up the room with expansive post-rock riffs or obliterating it with a battering ram of down tuned sludge, busy bass lines crab-walking underneath it all, and a buildup that brilliantly segues into a beautiful wave of guitars – but has new elements as well: the keyboards have never been this present (usually used for just a blanket of ambience, they’re a central instrument all over Wavering Radiant), and there’s a new sense of focus that holds the song together.
That sense of focus dulls one of Isis’ other trademarks, though: the feeling that the band would drop off the map entirely during one of their dalliances, seemingly drowning itself in atmosphere and stoned wanking when in fact they were planning on coming back 20 times stronger, rewarding you for your patience. The peak that comes 5 ½ minutes into “Hall of the Dead” is good, but Isis have done better jobs of setting you up and knocking you down in the past; it doesn’t feel as exciting this time around. And yet, you don’t feel as bored as parts of In the Absence of Truth may have led you to feel. The song perfectly establishes the rest of Wavering Radiant: this is a new chapter in the history of Isis, but it’s hard to determine whether the band have moved too far from what initially made them moving and unique, or if they’re moving to where the band have been moving all along, another brilliant step outward by a band who have been challenging the boundaries of metal for more than a decade.
Whatever you think of it, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t different from Isis’ other full lengths. Though it is similar in many regards to In the Absence of Truth (itself a profound departure from where the band had been heading on Oceanic and Panopticon), it fills in all the holes that that album was full of. Though Truth did admittedly have a bona fide classic in its ranks (the lush and beautiful “Dulcinea”), the rest of the record meandered about, each song essentially a variation of the one before it, leading to a gray mush of interesting-but-repetitive post-metal exercises. And while the sense of focus on Wavering Radiant definitely makes it an improvement over their blasé previous record, the album feels almost too focused at times.
Though it yields some excellent songs, it lacks much of what made Isis’ classic material great. It doesn’t have the massive, sludgy heaviness of Celestial; the bold, beautiful, transcendent beauty of Oceanic; or the complicated landscape of Panopticon. Its focus and attention to songcraft sets itself apart from those records, which is a good thing. But Isis’ deliberateness wasn’t as direct in the past as it is here, and part of the genius of those classic records was that once had to dig under the surface to see that the band meant every note of every trip they took into outer space, that their intention was to build you up, follow wherever they’d lead you, and when they arrived at their point, whether it took two or ten minutes to reach to do so, you’d be there with them, breathless and dumbstruck. That’s mostly absent here. Wavering Radiant is half good songs and half great songs, but no perfect songs. For most bands, this would be a minor complaint; for a band with such a mighty back catalog, it’s a significant and somewhat saddening flaw.
However, in the interest of full disclosure, this is probably an album I’ve listened to more than I have for any other I’ve reviewed for MetalSucks so far. I usually give a CD a few spins to try and soak up as much as I can (or as much as I should); I’ve given Wavering Radiant about a dozen thus far. And I can say, though the album doesn’t have the majesty or life-altering beauty that some of their past works have, I have yet to be bored by it. The songs, though not as expansive and exciting, are all remarkably solid, and hold up really well after multiple listens. The keyboards can occasionally be a bit much, but they also add a new dimension to the band, whether providing quirky atmosphere (the almost “Dream Weaver”-y opening of “Ghost Key”) or a sturdy ground for the guitars to jump from (the closing third of “Threshold of Transformation”). And while Wavering Radiant certainly isn’t my favorite (or even second favorite) Isis album, it’s got something to it that still makes it rewarding upon return, and is unique within the Isis catalog. Perhaps its greatest strength and weakness is that its flipped the band’s purpose completely: whereas Isis were once a band that fiddled with song structure by way of seemingly unending detours into post-rock, they’re now a band that fiddles with post-rock detours by way of song structure. They’ve returned with a new sense of purpose, which in many ways partially undoes what I loved most about the band. But the results of that sense of purpose are still intriguing and mystifying in their own way. Wavering Radiant is a great record but merely a good Isis record. What that means in the scheme of the band remains to be seen. In the meantime, it provides for an interesting curve in Isis’ long and interesting path.
(4 out of 5 horns)