Dark, cascading riffs on Wavering Radiant's lead track, Hall Of The Dead, immediately transport us to Isis's reality - one of the underground throne rooms in a vaguely Middle Earth story fragment where opposing loud/soft harmonies battle for dominance. [rssbreak] The Los Angeles band's sound is so progressive and engaging that, by the end of the second track, we feel we've listened to an entire album. The most dynamic track, Stone To Wake A Serpent, starts with reverberating trip-hoppy guitar stabs but quickly becomes a loud, guttural epic.
When Mastodon’s Blood Mountain reached my ears a couple years ago, the album’s potential for crossover appeal was very clear. Even in spite of its complexity and time signature heft, Blood Mountain had riffs for rock fans, speed for punk fans, mathematics for prog fans and balls behind it all. With Wavering Radiant, fifth album from post-metal progenitors, ISIS, the potential for crossover runs similarly prevalent, but only within the context or category of “music fan.”As snobbish as that may sound, you have to lose yourself in Wavering Radiant to hear and feel the big picture.
Pin a single label, style, adjective on Isis and it slips right off. They seem immune. For more than a decade, the Los Angeles five-piece has maneuvered between cries and whispers, dirt and polish, bruising noise and narcotic subtlety, repeatedly redrawing the borders of the one genre that accommodates them, metal, as they annex more sonic territory beyond it.
"Hall of the Dead" opens Isis' fifth album, Wavering Radiant, with a slow, ominous sound as if signaling the start of a science fiction/horror movie, before the band kicks in forcefully. "Threshold of Transformation" concludes the disc with the same strategy in reverse, as the band's stately hard rock suddenly gives way to a quieter, moody theme after more than nine minutes. And right in the middle of the album comes the becalmed under-two-minute title track, prefaced by more ambient music at the end of the first ten minutes of "Hand of the Host." Thus there is a structure to Wavering Radiant, which is hardly a typical heavy metal album, even if it has many of the trappings of one.
Can prog rock still be called progressive if it regresses, even just a little bit? Either way, in the case of Isis's fifth full-length, it's definitely the right move. There are still the Cro-Magnon howls and monumental riffing matched against maudlin post-rock workouts that you expect from the Californian five-piece, but the songs seem more considered, focused and, well, catchy than before. The Isis of old gave the impression they were enjoying their meandering jams just a little too much, leaving the listener a tad lost.
As excellent as Isis’s 2006 album In the Absence of Truth was, one had the inkling while listening to the record that in spite of its great merits, and indeed it was yet another high water mark in the band’s illustrious career, the album still felt like it was the sound of Isis taking their slowly evolving, signature sound as far as it could go before coming off as diluted and repetitive. Too late, moaned the more cynical folks in the crowd who were reluctant to accept Isis’s cleaner, more melodic direction, but whether or not you dug In the Absence of Truth, it was more than apparent that the band’s fifth album would have to be something awfully bold if they wanted to remain relevant in a subgenre they helped create and which was quickly becoming stale thanks to hordes of imitators. However, just like the case of Neurosis, those other progenitors of what’s come to be known as, for lack of a better term (and believe me, metal fans love sub-categories) “post metal”, who returned in 2007 with the spectacular return to form Given to the Rising, we all should know better than to doubt Isis’s abilities to continue to forge their own musical path, which their new album proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I’m never certain what to make of critics describing the sound of Isis as ‘heavy’, as to me it’s really not, not anymore. Heavy music, of a metal slant, deliberately sets out to provoke a reaction of fight or flee in the listener, to engage with aggression or cower behind a sofa from. That’s why fans love it so, for the way it stirs them up inside.
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.
Peaches Vulgarity has always had a place in popular music, but usually not as special a place as it does for Peaches. “I Feel Cream” (XL), this electroclash heroine’s new album, features the usual cornucopia of carnal boasts and hard-strobing beats, flagrantly deployed. “Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat,” she raps on “Trick or Treat,” which leaves only a speck to the imagination.
ISIS has an extremely good track record for having been around for over ten years now. Although in my own approximation and many others, the band’s 2006 album In the Absence of Truth may have been the one stumbling block. While Truth contained several songs with rather obvious nods to ISIS tourmates Tool, it becomes bizarre that with Tool’s Adam Jones adding guitar tracks to two songs on the band’s latest album, Wavering Radiant, that the brief similarities between these bands have fallen by the wayside.
In the decade since Isis first arrived in recorded format with 1999’s The Red Sea, the six-piece has gone from ripoffs of Godflesh and Earth to idolized avatars of whatever post-metal means this week. Their noise is a careful balance between the headbanging riffage of their Boston hardcore roots and the celestial calm they’ve worked to uncover in Los Angeles over the years. As simple as that is on paper, few bands have been so successful at making these counterweights sound both natural and interesting over an EP, let alone a decade and five full-lengths.