No one does foreboding like Isis. On Wavering Radiant, the band plays through a series of long, gloomy pieces, punctuating the oppressive atmospherics with flashes of shimmering melody and gripping thrash-metal. But even with such theatrics, Isis’s songs have a way of working around a mood rather than barreling into it. Everything about the album suggests ambiguity, uncertain hopes and fears conveyed via unconventional song structure and implicit lyrical descriptions. For lesser musicians, this level of experimentalism might prove disastrous. But Isis has been honing their post-metal technique for over a decade, and they’ve reached a point where realizing their creative vision doesn’t require them to shortchange the elements that make more conventional rock music compelling. The music’s emotional resonance doesn’t just survive the art-house treatment, it’s stronger for it.
Take the way the songs sprawl on, strung along with trippy guitar leads and slinky basslines, but never building linear momentum. On a track like the eight-minute “Ghost Key,” Isis isn’t taking us up a mountain, they’re leading us in concentric circles that never come to a center, their trajectory continually disrupted by Aaron Turner’s jagged screams. That makes for a demanding listen, but the material would be infinitely less compelling if presented in standard build-build-payoff format. Or take the album’s heady production style, in which Turner’s vocals are submerged in the mix so that his lyrics, even when properly sung, are never decipherable. Turner conveys emotions, but his ideas only come indirectly. Isis could write songs about emotional odysseys, but they’d rather write songs that inspire awe and disorientation. The album is harrowing and beautiful; it’s unclear whether it discloses dreams or nightmares.
All of which is to say that, more than a decade deep in their career, Isis’s proggy, theatrical take on crawling heavy-metal doom is as disorienting and cerebral as it’s ever been. And on Wavering Radiant, it’s also as good. Isis continues along the evolutionary course of Panopticon and The Absence of Truth, doing the type of work with texture and ambiance that has always been central in shoegaze and post-rock, but which remained rare in metal up until the band’s own pioneering Oceanic. Opener “Hall of the Dead” is overlaid with majestic organs; Jeff Caxide transforms his bass guitar from mere ballast to a melodic tool on “Hand of the Host”; “Threshold of Transformation” seems set on a rampaging finale, but ultimately ends the album in moody quietude. The guys aren’t afraid to take their time developing a melody—or as is more likely, a thick knot of them—or to patiently etch out a gloomy backdrop. As a result, the songs skew toward the long and meandering, but their cerebral highs provide ample reward, and the melodies are compelling enough that individual tracks only rarely feel excessive.
But lest we forget, Isis is still a metal band, and at times a spectacularly heavy one. The signifiers of their genre—the explosive din of distorted guitar, Turner’s strangled bellow—don’t oppose the textured melodicism of their surroundings so much as they contribute to their stormy density. On past releases, Isis employed loud/soft dynamics to stunning effect, and while that element remains central to their sound, the best parts of Wavering Radiant suggest a more sophisticated integration. Rather than playing on the line between pretty and heavy, tracks like “Stone to Make a Serpent” and “20 Minutes/40 Years” dissolve it. Their melodies emerge, in winding guitar leads and torrential solos, out of a thick gloom that comes courtesy of Isis’s rhythm section and keyboardist Clifford Meyer. That low-end morass ensures that even the most delicate moments on the album are grounded in knot-in-gut foreboding. It is this atmosphere, and the tension derived from the omnipresent threat of the band’s furious outbursts, that is Isis’s true medium. Whether trading in power chords or atmospheric overlays, the band excels at transforming emotions into thrilling sounds, palpable awe, and tangible dread. This is metal played at its arresting best.