Isis - _Wavering Radiant_
(Ipecac, 2009)
by: Jeremy Ulrey (7 out of 10)
One of the benefits, I think, to being an art metal band is that intellectualism in the genre is a relatively new phenomenon, and as such novelty alone often helps to smooth over certain inadequacies in the music itself. Sure, metal bands have always played smart, tackling weighty topics and attacking the status quo, but traditionally that's been done at more or less an 8th grade reading level. Musically it's been an even more pronounced evolution, for while you've always had bands like Celtic Frost and even early Metallica pushing boundaries, their efforts sound readily accessible compared to what the likes of Isis and front man Aaron Turner's Hydra Head Records are now bringing to the table.

It all raises the question of how well equipped the critical / journalist arm of the metal community is to effectively evaluate the material. Particularly troubling is the almost complete absence of negative reviews when it comes to this material. It doesn't seem reasonable that every album released by an arty, progressive band, whether it be Opeth, Isis, Sunn O))), Neurosis, et al is a near perfect work of art, but that's exactly what you'd think by reading a cross section of reviews. It's almost as if, in the absence of well trodden qualitative parameters along with the abandonment of guitar solos and the verse-chorus-verse format both journalists and fans alike have a tendency to get overly enthusiastic, elevating merely good music to godlike status or hyping outright bad music as vaguely "atmospheric" or "forward thinking", the gist being that if in actuality the music is confusing to their palate it's better to err on the side of gushing than to look ignorant if they sandbag the record and it later turns out nearly everyone else thinks it's a masterpiece. (Note: this doesn't apply to black metal elitists, who would much rather look stupid than to harbor opinions that are not edgy and anti-status quo at all costs.) That or maybe I'm reading too much into it and mere trendiness alone explains the lack of naysayers.

Either way, fuck all that. I've been a fan of Isis for a number of years now but -- like any other band -- I've never held them above reproach. And like a number of other proggy, experimental bands who have found their profiles elevated in the mainstream media lately, I've watched them essentially remake the same record several times over now, each time spit polishing it a little bit more, adding a greater proportion of clean vocals and a heavier emphasis on melodic accessibility. Which doesn't mean they've turned into Nickelback, but if all they're doing is rewriting the same song but making it easier on the ears from one album to the next, that's hardly "forward thinking", is it?

Case in point: opener "Hall of the Dead" has a chugging, catchy power groove reminiscent of "The Beginning and the End" from the band's genre-defining classic _Oceanic_. The clean vocals and ringing, discordant chords also strongly resemble the modus operandi of the Deftones, another genre-defining / -defying act that has seen their hazy blueprint watered down and dispassionately mass produced by other, lesser acts for popular consumption. But it's not so much that Aaron Turner and company are ripping off other bands as it is that they seem content to merely ape themselves.

I don't want to overstate the diluting of the formula -- these are still 7 to 10 minute songs sans readily apparent choruses, so it's not as if they've completely abandoned their art school proclivities -- but the focus on honing the production angle and the loud-quiet-loud dynamics over songwriting has left them with at best another interchangeable catalog entry and at worst a stagnant placeholder lacking in heart and conviction, a paint-by-numbers exercise coasting on instrumental complexity and competent ensemble work. There are catchy moments early on, to be sure, but nothing of a nature they haven't shown us before in superior form, and even the pleasant familiarity of those early moments has digressed into a directionless miasma by mid album that can be truly patience testing. After an almost continuous slate of releases up through 2006, it's been a long three years since Isis have reared their head on vinyl, and on the basis of _Wavering Radiant_ it doesn't appear that time off has helped them rediscover their passion for the sub genre they almost singlehandedly spear headed in the late '90s.


(article published 24/10/2009)

10/29/2006 K Sarampalis 9 Isis - In the Absence of Truth
8/12/2001 P Azevedo 7 Isis - SGNL>05
10/25/2000 A Bromley 9 Isis - Celestial
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