Review Summary: Isis create their most natural sound yet, but lose the strength from past works by doing so.2 of 2 thought this review was well written
‘Wavering Radiant’ is an album like no other. I remember the day I walked into my local music shop and saw it, sitting behind a few Judas Priest records. It didn’t belong. The size of the case was unique and distorted, the colors on the front like a Van Gogh painting, elegant and mysterious, without an album title, a band name, or a track listing. Blank. And there it was, hiding behind a copy of ‘British Steel’. Wavering Radiant is album that breaks the conventions of metal, and instead opts for something subtle, something serene, and at times, beautiful. It still has guitars that sound like chainsaws drenched with mud, slow and violent drum beats, and harsh vocals. It’s still Isis. But Isis has changed since they broke onto the music scene, and I think, in order to appreciate this album to the fullest extent, you have to trace Isis back to their roots.
Isis is a band that has rocked the world of modern metal violently. Through their early years of forming, they progressed as a band both musically and physically. The first sounds presented on ‘The Mosquito Control’ and ‘The Red Sea’ were raw and energetic, with anger beating the drums. Isis, at this early point in their career, were a band without a true identity, drawing on other influences like Neurosis and Tool, mimicking the music they admired. Their debut album ‘Celestial’ continued this, but at the same time broke some of the previous ground layed down; the raw sludge metal was combined with softer elements. Fast forward to ‘Oceanic’, what is often considered the crown jewel of Isis, and the trend continues. The themes change from crumbling towers to the ocean, and the album shows this. Isis doesn't sound like they're destroying something anymore, but trade the raw feeling of 'Celestial' for a more open musical style.
‘Panopticon’. Post-rock meets metal. No longer is Isis dabbling with the idea of adding post-rock to their music, but they create an entire album around it. The opening track, ‘So Did We’, hits you full on, but after the initial ferocity, slows down for a calming guitar, reminiscent of Mogwai. The album too, takes a more thought out, careful pace. Then, over halfway through Isis’ decade long career, a huge shift in sound was made. ‘In The Absence Of Truth’ marked the final step of development to ‘Wavering Radiant’. The entire album is the black sheep of the band, similar in appearance, but also very alien. Aaron Harris is more active on the drums than ever, directing the album seemingly himself. The songs are much more melodic, much softer, and break the norm Isis is used to. One listen to the album will prove that Isis has progressed, and will also prove that Isis is still very much the same band it’s always been.
Taking over the night and day, you were with me then and always.
This lyric, in effect, summarizes Wavering Radiant completely.‘You were with me always.’
Isis has always been there since the start, an organism that has progressed and evolved. Natural selection has taken Isis, and transformed it into something different, but still so very recognizable. The anger is still there, with the harsh, hollow vocals of Aaron Turner charging through the songs, but the music is no longer as muddy. ‘Wavering Radiant’ is a balance of Isis’ many elements, going from their sludge infused days, to the sharp fission of ‘In The Absence Of Truth’. The record feels natural, almost living. Each song is buzzing with life and wonder, guitars layered on top of each other, and the bass stronger than ever. No longer does the bass follow all of the instruments, but instead breaks away, leading the pack at times. A listen to the opening of ’20 Minutes / 40 Years’ clearly shows the change. A bass as deep as the rumbling sea moves like a serpent, flowing back and forth, a drum beat pounding behind it, with cymbals like falling rain, and a delayed guitar joins in. Distortion rips through the speakers, and the vocals match its ferocity, sounding genuinely enraged. But as fast as the music crashes into you, it subsides to a calm passage. Turner trades his growl to a neurotic song, almost a hum, singing along to the new guitar, with the bass flowing behind, the drums still pounding, but with a little less tom. This is the new Isis. This is ‘Wavering Radiant’. The sound presented by the band is flawless, able to sound serene, and switch to an angry, murky voice instantly. All the works of Isis come together to create something completely new, and yet also so familiar.
The music has changed in both sound and structure, and most noticeably, production. As mentioned before, Isis always had a sludgy tone, and the instruments would fight each other in each song. The melody was always present in the music, but often it was drowned out by the constant hum of distortion. ‘In The Absence Of Truth’ took a softer tone, with instruments and vocals turned up, but came across as confused and unfinished. Aaron Turner’s vocals sounded disembodied and foggy, and whether he was rasping or singing, was almost impossible to understand. ‘Wavering Radiant’, however, takes a blend of these two styles. The guitars are mixed so they sound upfront and sludgy when the distortion is on, but become quiet and clear during clean passages. The bass and drums follow each other closely, but instead of sticking to the same rhythms, they change at the drop of a hat. Aaron Harris is able to drum steadily, with a forceful snare hit, rolling kicks, and subtle cymbal hits, and can instantly switch to a more aggressive style. Though he’s always been a capable drummer, his talent shines on ‘Wavering Radiant’. Jeff Caxide, the bassist of Isis, is finally able to play with a more obvious presence. On past albums, he would mimic the guitars, and due to the hollow production, could be heard on few occasions. Now, the bass is mixed higher, and can be clearly heard in each song passage, beating along like a heart. Caxide’s playing also seems much more aggressive, not to mention more interesting and varied. This doesn’t apply to solely the bass though, as it is clear to see every instrument is up a notch – including the vocals.
‘Wavering Radiant’ is buzzing with melody. It’s not the cheesy In Flames melody, either, but something else. Every instrument plays off each other, creating a body for each song. The drums are the backbone, and are almost always present, whether it be a slow march or a fast charge, driving the songs. The bass plays along with the drums, low and moody, but almost playing with every instrument. The bass will thunder along with the drums at points, only to then change and go with the guitar riffs, a low hum underneath them. However, the bass also breaks off and plays solo bits along to the music, which is enjoyable, but not out of place. The guitars further the complex relationship with the bass and drums, and though there is a ‘lead’ guitar, it’s hard to distinguish it. Isis has never been a band that slows down for a blazing solo, and that still hasn’t changed. The greatest example of the relationship between guitars would be on ‘Ghost Key’. The guitars enter with a soft melody, the keyboards (courtesy of Bryant Clifford Meyer) creating ambience among the background. The first guitar plays a riff softly, and then next follows, layering upon it with a new riff. The guitars layer and build up on each other, until they explode with a burst of distortion. The result is the new Isis, melodic yet suffocating. The last element of the music comes together with Turner’s vocals. He plays off of the other instruments, echoing their notes, almost like an answer. The result is something melodic and haunting, and is a positive progression from the days of ‘Celestial’. Turner’s voice has also taken quite a leap from his early days, and his singing now truly compliments the music. Isis meshes together better than ever on ‘Wavering Radiant’.
But, the downfall of this album is that while mastering the sound, Isis has not made a perfect record. Though interesting, melodic, and powerful, the album falls short of the previous Isis albums. Though several reasons can be brought forward for this, I’d like to pin it on one major issue; coherency. ‘Panopticon’, ‘Oceanic’, and even ‘In The Absence Of Truth’ all flowed together. Every single song rose and fell, just as the tides do, but on ‘Wavering Radiant’, the songs stop. No longer are smooth transitions there, and it almost feels like this album was built simply on individual songs. The keyboards are stronger than ever, complimenting the instruments and adding to each quiet passage, but sometimes they don’t seem to quite fit the music. The guitars have many effects, sounding haunting and distant, with quiet tremolo picking often appearing, and the bass remains much the same. But these instruments only work within single songs.
Previously, the songs would carry into one another, and though each one had a distinct voice, they all seemed to fit. This has jagged transitions, with missed opportunities to bridge songs. Plus, it’s not just the songs themselves, but rather the music that gives this effect. The standard conventions of Isis are still present, with groove-oriented rhythms and strange time signatures, but they aren’t carried throughout the album. Every single song sounds different, and when one ends, it stops. A new song begins. Though many albums have fallen into the trap of monotony, this is one I feel should have embraced the elements, like Isis has done so on ‘Panopticon’ and ‘Oceanic’. Finally, the album also feels just a bit boring; there’s no real reason for this either, and I can’t truly explain it. The songs have variety, they sound different, and each instrument is active and interesting for the whole album. But, the single instruments are boring unless paired with the others; it’s not a flaw when you listen to the album, but singling in on, say, the guitar, isn’t terribly exciting. The rhythms repeat again and again, crawling slowly like a worm, and though it’s not a complaint from me, it is a weakness in the album. When listening to the entire album, it feels like there’s just something missing that takes away from it all.
Still, it’s hard to find fault in this album, even if this is truly a strange one. From Isis’ original debut to their final album, here, they’ve broken the conventions of metal, while still taking their influences and past sounds, creating an album that’s as peaceful as it is heavy. One can only hope future bands take heed of this, and one day, create an album as perfect as its voice is strong.
This is our ghost key.