To an audience outside the insular world of heavy metal, each Isis album since 2004’s thunderous Panopticon has been touted as the band’s breakthrough release. In my mind, however, Panopticon continues to stand as the single best Isis album (though the most serious true believers will tell you it’s the meaner Oceanic, from 2002). As musicians and custodians of the wildly rewarding Hydra Head label, Isis has done more than any other band besides perhaps Sunn O))) to foster a wider appreciation for really heavy music. But Wavering Radiant isn’t the band’s best by a really long shot, even if it ain’t bad.
One might assume that the disappointment of longtime Isis fans (or any listeners predisposed towards interesting, forward-thinking heavy metal) with the blandly acceptable Wavering Radiant can be attributed to its increased “accessibility” and cleaner-toned melodies. But In the Absence of Truth (2006) was even more accessible than the new album, hewing closer to My Bloody Valentine than The Mars ‘Bitchin!’ Volta. Instead, Wavering Radiant will likely get people interested in the more powerful exponents of the thinking man’s metal that has developed over roughly the last 10 years, and that’s really groovy.
The band has long used synthesizers to interesting, untraditional effect, but the prominent keyboard tones sound pretty hokey on this album. At its flattest, Wavering Radiant sounds like bad Smashing Pumpkins or latter-day Mogwai. “Ghost Key” even sounds kind of like Disintegration-era Cure. Good thing the heavy riffs, such as on tracks like “Stone to Wake A Serpent,” still pack a serious punch.
The second half is definitely the more satisfying, building towards a huge climactic payoff in closer “Threshold of Transformation,” but the majority of melodic lines wash out in ponderous chorus, reverb, and delay effects like driftwood from sea to shore. Quieter interludes in the songs once conveyed a muted, ominous tone, like a whispered threat in relation to the violence that preceded and followed (check Panopticon’s “In Fiction” or “Wills Dissolve”). Now, especially over the album’s first half, they clump up damply as a salad of wet noodles, building nothing out of something as pointlessly (though not nearly as obnoxiously) as the Volta’s Cedric Bixler and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez.
Maybe what’s happening here isn’t too far off from the early 90s mainstreaming of Soundgarden -- Isis as the inventive, restless metal band looking towards bright new music, an early representative of one of the key labels of its movement (for both Ipecac and the band’s own Hydra Head imprint), the ones everyone expected to break these heavy, serious tones back into the mainstream instead of, in this case, Mastodon. Could this be Isis’ Superunknown? Maybe. But comparing Wavering Radiant to Superunknown also implies that this album could be the band’s penultimate statement, its rock of ages with the best shot at withstanding time’s arrows. If the too-often twinned strands of listener preference can be unwound, hopefully it will be remembered as the most-heard Isis album, not the greatest.
1. Hall Of The Dead
2. Ghost Key
3. Hand Of The Host
4. Wavering Radiant
5. Stone To Wake A Serpent
6. 20 Minutes / 40 Years
7. Threshold of Transformation