05 June 2009

Isis – Wavering Radiant

Conspiracy Records (2009)

Doyens of the post-metal scene bring forth their fifth full-length album. Are Isis still bringing the celestial goods, or is their radiance wavering?

It takes a while to realise, but Wavering Radiant is a different Isis album. The last time this happened was 2002, when Aaron Turner’s full time job (apart from running Hydra Head, natch) transformed, butterfly style, from brutal sludge metal to something altogether more delicate. Celestial to Oceanic was one of the more eye-opening musical metamorphoses of the decade, which meant the conservative follows-up, Panopticon and In the Absence of Truth, greatly disappointed.

Nothing seemed to be going on with the last brace; the music gradually watered down until stagnant. Fans of metal’s more brutal side longed for a new Old Man Gloom album, which might at least give Turner a chance to let his musical hair down, away from the pressure of being post-metal standard-bearer.

Despite initial listens, Wavering Radiant brings the goods. Listening to it is an actual pleasure, rather than some grim rite of passage one must undergo in order to hold an opinion. The Isis sound, debuted proper on the 2002 album, is still present and correct, but only in as much as they are Isis. To diss them for that in itself would be akin to complaining if Dizzee Rascal raps on his next album. There are, after all, more pertinent reasons to criticise this album.

While the opening songs are fair enough, and the album is one of those that improve as they progress, the mood is much of a muchness. There is clean, skeletal, metal throughout, with change in neither pace nor demeanour. We get the obligatory quiet bits and loud bits, but that dynamic has now become a singular entity. It is expected, and we hope for more than this binary these days.

There are times when Isis subtly alter their mood, most interestingly when they take influence from outside. Tool’s Adam Jones apparently plays on two songs, though it’s unclear, to listen, which these are. However, the LA band’s influence permeates. The basslines on Wavering Radiant bounce and jolt with that familiar, elastic, property, while the riffs occasionally shift into rhythmic intensity. The seismic six-string shifts on songs like ‘Hand of the Host’ and ‘20 Minutes/40 Years’ are the sort not heard from this band in years. It is no coincidence that these are highlights.

Turner’s vocals are growing as well, sounding eerily like Steve Brodsky, from Isis’ peers Cave In. These journeys into melody are so successful (vocal harmonies, no less) that you wonder why Turner still bothers with the pseudo-death metal vocals at all. They add little to the music and must serve to turn off more potential fans than they attract.

A slow-burning success, Wavering Radiant should satisfy fans and those new to the band. But while subtle developments are all well and good, it would be nice to have one of these big name metal bands actually take a real chance with a new album. Modern metal needs a shift like ‘the black album’, Oceanic, or Cave In’s Jupiter, again. Such a move might threaten the current culture of packed gigs and vinyl release insta-sellouts, but we know what to expect from everybody at this stage of the game. Might the impending sunnO)) opus buck this trend of professional predictability?

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