Wavering Radiant

Like Tool, Isis has smartly embraced the notion that their already atmospheric, enveloping creations can be even more enthralling when there’s a visual dimension to play off of. Although it remains to be seen whether Tool‘s Adam Jones’ involvement in Wavering Radiant will lead to the same astounding videos he’s done for his own band, at least we have Aaron Turner’s brilliant cover art to start with. With simple shapes, obsessive detailing and deep, blooming colors, it instantly brings to mind a number of associations: Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Peter Max’s pop-art psychedelia, Japanese woodcuts and the pulsing, luminescent life that haunt the abyssal zones of our deepest oceans.

It’s that subterranean motif that’s stuck with me the most throughout my many play-throughs of Wavering Radiant. Almost all of the album’s lengthy tracks seem to be occurring in some sacred, underwater space – one that’s alternately animated by shimmering currents and concussive pressure-blasts. That dichotomy – a delicate sound of thunder, if you will – has defined Isis for a long time, but so far, it’s largely been accomplished via acoustic interludes pitted against post-hardcore explosions.

In the Absence of Truth’s keys and effects showed a more unabashed step towards full-on post-rock spaciness, but the sonic palette on Wavering Radiant completes that transformation, and it is stunning. Each track employs stately pipe organs, shimmering tones, and a uniquely flooded bass sound (which I’ve only heard elsewhere on The Cure‘s seminal Disintegration) to cast you down into those depths. On “Hand of the Host,” “20 Minutes/40 Years” and “Ghost Key,” you’ll float for minutes in meditative intoxication, until you’re awakened by the dual leviathans of Turner’s cavernous roar and Mike Gallagher’s dissonant, distorted guitar-tectonics.

In fact, the post-rock stylings and mantra-like compositions are so accomplished and mesmerizing that they actually diminish the metal portions of Wavering Radiant. It’s not always the case – when a track starts out heavy, as with the stuttering gallop of “Hall of the Dead,” or the undulating, uroboric rhythms of “Stone to Wake a Serpent,” (as usual, the song titles are fantastic), it’s arresting and undiluted. And part of it may be that the mix treats both halves equally, so that the contrast isn’t as bruising as you’d expect. Mostly though, it’s just that the metal, when it does come in after an extended prog interlude, seems to be a counterpart first, rather than a compelling element on its own.

To give a good example, go back and listen to “Ghost Trail,” off Cult of Luna‘s 2008 release, Eternal Kingdom. Cult of Luna is frequently labeled as an Isis-clone (and a damn good one, if you buy that line), but they absolutely floored me with that song, which features a 5-minute juggernaut centerpiece of roiling riffs and gorgeous solos. Every time I hear it, I’m simultaenously enraptured and energized – volume cranked, fists pounding the steering wheel, probably going to cause an accident one of these days. Yet I can’t say that about most of these tracks – given how Isis has compartmentalized their identity, it’s one or the other, but rarely both at once.

One song does break that mold in a way, and that’s closer “Threshold of Transformation.” The buried screams below the crush and chug of that song’s centerpiece make them more haunting and cathartic than the bellowing in its normal state. It’s the album’s blackest moment, and then even as the song rises up towards the light with its mellotron-fueled finale, it feels like its duality has truly been earned.

If Isis can return to writing heavier moments that are as transportive and galvanizing as their post-rock side – to go for the heart and the balls as well as the head – then I think a genre-destroying masterpiece is in their future. As for now, we’ve been given what’s still an exquisite, skillful and soulful experience, certain to reward those of you that get properly submerged in it.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 18th, 2009


  1. Commented by: bast

    Good review.
    I get the lack of a “new” more agressive kind of thing here. It´s a top 10 candidate though and it promises lots of play time and discovery.

  2. Commented by: bjorn

    Cult of Luna is better than Isis, in my opinion, but I do like Wavering Radiant.

  3. Commented by: BKaz

    I like Isis more than CoL actually, but I honestly am confused why they are compared so similarly. CoL is way more intense and dark than Isis in my opinion… Isis has never been able to achieve the same dark and downright evil sound of CoL, whereas CoL has rarely achieved the beautiful and cascading tones of Isis… both bands are phenomenal though, but i find that i can listen to Isis for extended periods of time whereas CoL is only listenable to on occasion

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