So long have Isis issued their bombastic decrees from atop the post-metal mountain, so rotten are so many of the bands that mimic Isis’s guitar textures and titanic crescendos, that we forget how good they are. Not every one of their recent releases has reached the heights of Oceanic (2002), but we listen to them anyway. Isis remain standard bearers, and even the band’s missteps are worthwhile. While In the Absence of Truth (2006) felt weighted down by its own ponderousness, it was also a bold step forward in terms of melody, ambience and musicianship.
On Wavering Radiant, Isis reward us for continuing to listen. All the monster riffs and cobwebby guitar interplay and extended, crescendo-centric structures remain, but this time, they congeal into tight songs with clear intentions and a minimum of the pretense that saddled Isis in the past. Isis have overcome navel-gazing and star-watching, and settled on a confident stare straight into the eyes of their audience. Wavering Radiant aims not to humble and destroy. It wants to connect.
Hence the bold major-key start to album opener “Hall of the Dead.” That signature 5/4 Isis flicker-chug positively glows, especially combined with the enriching presence of Cliff Meyer’s Fender Rhodes and electric organs, mixed with prog-rock closeness by new producer “Evil” Joe Barresi (Enslaved, the Melvins, Tool). Those warm keyboard tones melt the ice of Aaron Turner and Mike Gallagher’s frosty guitars on “Ghost Key.” The most obvious change on Wavering Radiant is how Turner’s come as a clean singer, and how Isis’s songs have grown to accommodate his singing voice. Who ever thought that an Isis record would be drenched in vocal harmonies? There Turner goes on “Stone to Wake a Serpent,” harmonizing with himself like two helium-treated Steve Brodskys, then harshing his own mellow a couple of minutes later with his spine-shattering growl.
More than any of these cosmetic changes, it’s the new approach to songwriting that makes the difference on Wavering Radiant. For the first time in a long while, all five members were living in the same place for the couple of years before the album’s completion. The opportunity for full-band writing and woodshedding sessions has paid off with songs that move with melody and purpose, and do things other than diddle around for a couple minutes and then smash planets with a huge-ass payoff. Big riffs are embroidered into “Hall of the Dead” and “Threshold of Transformation,” rather than coming as epic conclusions; watery bits build and expand on melodic themes where before they would just set moods.
Some may miss the danger of earlier Isis records, the bombastic swings between furrowed-brow lows and triumphant peaks. That’s far from gone, but the magic of Wavering Radiant is less about titanic riffs and more about how it sustains that edge-of-your-seat intensity throughout the eight-plus minute runtimes of each song. This is perhaps the first Isis album since Oceanic that both demands and inspires repeat listens. It might very well be Isis’s best work to date. At the very least, Wavering Radiant affirms that we still have good reason to follow the band's every move.
For their fifth full-length, post-metal pioneers Isis brought in producer Joe Barresi (Queens of the Stone Age, The Melvins) to grant the proceedings a slightly dirtier edge than their past efforts with Matt Bayles. Band interviews from before the album's release suggest a more orchestral feel, with more interplay among instruments than ever before. Also of note: with the addition of guitarist Adam Jones on two of Wavering Radiant's seven tracks, Isis have now featured half of the members of their former tourmates, Tool, on Isis studio albums. Whaddayasay you return the favor one of these days, eh, Tool?