The dissolution of ISIS in 2009 was one of the saddest moments of the year for me. This band had been with me for about five years at that point, I had had the tremendous luck of seeing them live once, in Germany, and they had opened my eyes to a whole new horizon in music. They also made me realize that nagging little bit of personal theory I have about my musical tastes – as long as there’s contrast, I’m happy.
Going through ISIS’ discography is quite an enlightening journey – the way they evolved from one album to the next is, to me, truly a fascinating affair. Moving from brutal, almost crude, layered drones with flashes of harmony and progression towards the almost symphonic sonic expansion easily observed on Wavering Radiant was a slow process, a dramatic, satisfying buildup, which makes me visualize a human body coming into existence from bones to flesh, to the intense light trapped in the eyes, very slowly and all the more impressive.
This album is my favorite of theirs, and, just like in the case of E.S.T., I’m glad it was to be the last. Going out with a bang such as this isn’t the worst fate than can befall a rock band, not by a long shot. Wavering Radiant is a culmination of a path ISIS walked proudly for almost twenty years, cutting a swath through the thicket that was the metal genre when they began. In my opinion metal is normally a question of attitude, first and foremost, and only later does it become aesthetically assured of itself, as it were. With ISIS, I suspect things were turned around from the start. Rarely have I heard a band which gives such a strong impression of intellectual awareness of their music. There’s no facade to keep, no “message” to convey, there’s just a raw feeling of pleasure towards creating music which is, simply put, mighty. In spite of their sludge-metal, drone roots, mature ISIS releases never sounded stale, never allowed themselves the indulgence of pounding a mechanical riff into the listener’s brain senselessly. It always felt like the band was making music they’d enjoy listening to, first and foremost, and that would simply refuse the luxury of being boring. Wavering Radiant is perhaps the best example of that – the grafting of desperately brutal passages (both vocal and instrumental) on spacious, luminescent stretches of sound of haunting beauty is perhaps never more accomplished than on this record. The song Ghost Key comes to mind, with it’s numerous fragments, seamlessly sewed together with the utmost confidence by the band, covering the entire range of their expression to a level only hinted at on previous releases.
For me, ISIS acts like an ultimate energy source. Sometimes I sit and listen and say to myself – this music could infuse the dead with enough focus and will to rise and live again. There is simply nothing I can picture that can seem daunting when I have ISIS for a soundtrack. The sheer might, the cascading energy emanating from their songs is just too much to allow for any sort of anxiety. I’ll never forget the way the vocalist would transform from one passage to the next in their live show. From a thin, quite-frail looking individual, he would grow two feet and simply project an unstoppable wave of force every time one of the more brutal vocal stretches came up in a song. It was during that show I felt that musicians don’t just pluck guitar strings – when they get it right, they start gaining access to some deeply ingrained musical instrument in their audience’s minds. Nothing new here, I realize, but it was ISIS that brought this old cliche into reality for me and made me see its completely true, if somewhat banal validity. And, just to bring home my point about their music being essentially intellectual, in spite of the obvious asperity, I remember a guy at the concert who was thoroughly inebriated, which is the norm at any other metal concert I ever witnessed. However, in this case, he was sticking out like a sore thumb, getting into everyone’s way, trying to start a mosh pit when nobody else felt the slightest urge to smack anyone else, except maybe for him. This isn’t aggressive music, it’s purging – it’s no more aggressive than putting disinfectant on a wound – the same sort of sensory overload and the same sense of cleanliness are the only things left behind after listening to them, at least in my case. The drunken troublemaker was thus quickly ejected from the room and I could see tranquil smiles all around once he was gone.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy this stark, serious form of musical expression. I feel it’s some of the most direct communication music has ever made me experience and I recommend using headphones, because it begs to be listened to at really quite loud volumes. Sometimes I get the feeling the record is actually shy, feeling distant unless you push it a bit, unless you force it to take over the room. And then it crackles with electricity and heat. That’s it from me, time to get immersed in this musical medicinal alcohol…