Atmospheric and loud aren’t two mutually exclusive qualities when it comes to music, they just tend to be packaged as such. Yet if there’s one band in recent memory to have deftly married the two (and there’s more than one), it’s Isis. Ever since unleashing their debut album Celestial at the beginning of the decade, the Los Angeles by way of Boston outfit has charted a progression from gut-punching sludge toward expansive, melodic depths. By the time they had released 2006’s In the Absence of Truth, Isis had taken their music deep into ethereal, psychedelic post-rock, which pleased those who loved the band for their instrumental experimentation, if not those who preferred their Isis a touch more explosive.
Three years later, Isis continues their ongoing evolution on Wavering Radiant, but in numerous directions. With the aid of producer Joe Barresi, the band builds upon the stunning Isis framework that made Oceanic and Panopticon such compelling albums, but with a tighter, more dynamic punch, and a stronger sense of melody than ever before. Wavering Radiant, like any selection within the band’s discography, is a huge record. It’s absolutely fucking monumental. But the album is, by no means, an exercise in merely making the most cosmically expansive record imaginable. In fact, it’s anything but. By matching gigantic productions with equally gigantic melodies and compelling progressions, the group has made an album that’s not only their most accessible, but one of their most fun to listen to from beginning to end.
The sharp, precise chug that kicks off first track “Hall of the Dead” should send the message early on that this is an album that rocks hard, and consistently at that. Yet “Hall of the Dead” also marks one of the most accessible moments, if not the most accessible moment, in the band’s career, as Clifford Meyer’s twinkling keyboard harmonizes with Michael Gallagher and Aaron Turner’s sludgy guitars immaculately. All the while, Turner sounds equally comfortable and capable singing as he does growling, and does both here perfectly. “Ghost Key,” meanwhile, finds Isis elegantly sailing between intricate instrumental passages and explosions of doom-laden distortion. Drummer Aaron Harris is the secret weapon here, supplying a steady, upbeat tempo that lends the song an urgency that keeps the adrenaline surging. As the song reaches its melancholy outro, it recalls something out of The Cure’s Disintegration, yet with a beastly heft behind it, of course.
Immediately preceding the title track, a two-minute instrumental that separates the album’s two halves, is the awe-inspiring 11-minute opus, “Hand of the Host.” As with “Hall of The Dead,” Turner’s vocals are just as powerful when he sings melodically as when he roars. Isis hammers out a psychedelic groove in the amazing “Stone to Wake A Serpent,” thanks in large part to Meyer’s organ and Gallagher’s squealing slide leads. Yet in its melodic chorus, the song recalls a more graceful Cave In. While “20 Minutes/ 40 Years” isn’t quite a sprint, it gets off the ground quickly with its catchy bassline and pristine guitars, building toward its soaring midsection. Making a perfect counterpart to “Hall of the Dead,” “Threshold of Transformation” ends the album in a manner similar to how it began, with furious chugs and eerie keyboards intertwined. Before it reaches its funereal finish, however, the band grooves through a catchy chorus, amps up the fretwork pyrotechnics, and eases into trippy post-rock. It’s an exhausting listen, but well worth the journey.
Impeccably sequenced, masterfully executed and tightly crafted, Wavering Radiant is a new high point for one of metal’s most innovative bands. Having been in a constant state of evolution for the past decade, Isis not only keeps pushing boundaries with this new set, but ties in elements that made their past records so amazing, resulting in both a culmination of their work to date and a bold new statement. If there’s one truly important quality that it shares with the group’s past albums, however, it’s the mystique and intrigue that unravels with each layer, continually rewarding the listener with every marathon spin.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.