Isis Gets Even Better (In Tiny Increments) on “Wavering Radiant”

It's been a decade-long evolution for Isis to reach "Wavering Radiant," and while the band's fifth LP is the second in a row where innovation seems to take a backseat to song and album structure, it's still the band's best.

Their debut, "Celestial," hinted at breaking free from sludge metal roots. Next, "Oceanic" fully embraced Godflesh-like electronics in a leap of faith. Then "Panopticon" returned the band to the heavy side of metal and embraced the heavier post-rock bands like Slint. With "The Absence of Truth" in 2006, Isis finally stopped making leaps, opting instead for simply trying to do what they'd already done, but better. Maybe it fell somewhat short, but on "Wavering Radiant," released early this month, Isis achieved what "Truth" seemed to be going for: The Isis sound played tighter and fuller and a little more complex, with more memorable melody to boot.

"Truth's" only real innovation was guitarist Aaron Turner occasionally trading his somewhat growl for actual singing, which both made the songs one-man duets of a sort and offered a nice contrast to what's become a heavy metal cliché. "Wavering" furthers that approach and even increases the presence of vocals -- they aren't as sparse as past Isis albums. The other differences are just as nuanced. Again, the melodies are stronger, making this album more hypnotic. The ambience that's set this band apart is in full effect, as Cliff Meyer's keys reach to classic prog and psychedelia. "Wavering" is album rock worthy of Isis' affection for Pink Floyd.

Isis have always been aces of light v. shade -- welcome v. menace -- and while they still take turns on "Wavering," they don't seem as far apart this time around. Drummer Aaron Harris reminds me more of the Melvins' Dale Crover with each record for his ability at managing drastically different tempos with incredible dexterity. Better composed ambient backdrops don't take away from the sludge that's still left in the sound, courtesy of bassist Jeff Claxide. This album is dirtier than its predecessor, but it's still the cleanest sludge sound around. Like it's been petrified and polished and put in a diorama. And small things like the increased orchestral feel and the church organ on opener "Hall of the Dead" add at once to both the beauty of the music and the nightmarish vibe.

Again, the songs here are long -- 7 to 11 minutes other than the effects heavy ambient bridge between the three songs of the first half of the album and the three songs of the second. They are epic journeys Isis fans are used to, but the transitions within seem smoother, again enhancing the hypnosis, nowhere better than on "20 Minutes/40 Years," which has guitars that moan with more feeling than Turner. Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, "Threshold of Transformation" closes the album in fine style -- maybe their best set closer yet. All the power and experimentation and churning guitars and impending doom are there, in alternating doses, and it reads like the band's most impressive epic melodic metal journey yet.

See for yourself at Saturday's Black Cat show with like-minded instrumetalists Pelican.

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