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Isis - "Wavering Radiant" (CD)

Isis - "Wavering Radiant" CD cover image

"Wavering Radiant" track listing:

1. Hall of the Dead (7:39)
2. Ghost Key (8:29)
3. Hand of the Host (10:43)
4. Wavering Radiant (1:48)
5. Stone to Wake a Serpent (8:31)
6. 20 Minutes/40 Years (7:05)
7. Threshold of Transformation (9:53)

Reviewed by on January 2, 2010

"Isis’ incessant focus on restraint and song craft has paid off."

For a band that released its first full-length just nine years ago, Isis has developed a legendary back catalogue. Each of their four releases previous to “Wavering Radiant” is touted by various folks in various places as a landmark of post-metal. Thus it is hard to know what to make of “Wavering Radiant.” Is it the culminating sledgehammer of glory for these post-metal gods, or is it simply another meandering exercise as the band plays inward? It ends up being more of the latter, but that doesn’t mean it is a bad record, and it ends up being surprisingly fantastic.

Isis took a fairly radical departure on their fourth full length, “In the Absence of Truth,” and they continue on “Wavering Radiant.” Trading even more crushing and claustrophobic sludge for melodic shine, the band finds itself in new territory (for them anyway). Album opener “Hall of the Dead” is based on a syncopated riff and bright melody straight from the start, and even the long crescendo to the brutal payoff doesn’t jump the meter as high as it used to. The entire song feels like a faded intro to a metal album.

And just as the album settles into a groove over the twenty minutes of “Ghost Key” and “Hand of the Host,” the intermission hits in the form of the title track. Less than two minutes of atmospherics, albeit with more than a minute of lead-in from “Hand,” it throws a tic into the flow. But instead of using the proven metal methodology of the most down-tuned and crushing breakdown possible, Isis has gone in completely the other direction for this one. And there is the hidden quality of “Wavering Radiant.”

The band has played off expectations spectacularly to create something unexpected - at the same time “Wavering Radiant” is easy and familiar and completely foreign. Gentle melodies, smooth changing modes, atmospherics and time signatures, Aaron Turner’s softly-landing clean vocals – these are all polite and practically unnoticed house guests. But after taking a closer look and listening carefully through the walls, there is upheaval to be had. But only short bursts of the traditional brutality and anger type; most comes in the form of slightly shaded riffs mixed back in the tableau, Bryant Meyer’s keyboards and electronics covering parts that sludge-forged guitars used to, and Jeff Caxide’s bass spidering along, looking for the ripe moments to explode. Just as the band seems ready to put forth fury as expected, they opt for another carefully measured melody.

Isis’ incessant focus on restraint and song craft has paid off. Post-metal and post-rock are particularly popular right now, as bands like Mastodon, Baroness, and Neurosis are continually getting headlines for their recent releases that are filled with brutality and melody and completely random elements all is a mish mosh. But Isis has arguably done something greater. Using external expectations as a counterpoint Isis created a focused album, with tight songs and cohesive music that continually, and almost frustratingly, returns to the easy-yet-haunting melodies time after time. Just as Van Halen made sure every song on “1984” fit their tight and focused framework, Isis has done the same thing. And it works, by god.

Highs: The crescendo and climax on “20 Minutes/40 Years” is glorious.

Lows: Sometimes the band could have opted to go a bit heavier.

Bottom line: Fantastic post-metal album uses restraint and song craft as the keys for success.

Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls
4.5 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)