By way of some gargantuan riffs and a complex, ever-evolving sound, Los Angeles-based five-piece Isis have spent the last decade-plus developing themselves as one of the finest exponents of doom-laden expansive metal around.
Hitting new critical highs with the release of albums ‘Oceanic’ (2002), ‘Panopticon’ (2004) and ‘In The Absence of Truth’ (2006), the band has continued to refine their exploratory metal template with new album, ‘Wavering Radiant’ – a sprawling long-player of epic proportions, and one that, whilst plumbing new depths of sonic depravity, hits on a rich vein of genuine songwriting steam with a more to-the-point approach and a seemingly newfound swagger to boot.
We caught up with the band’s frontman Aaron Turner to get the story behind the new album…
There seems to be a more direct approach to a lot of this album. Is this a conscious change in the writing and developing of these songs, or are you just naturally feeling less inclined to wrap the songs up as tightly?
The perspective on whether the songs are more direct or less on this album is totally subjective, not just with others who hear the album but also within the band itself. As far as our intentions when writing the album are concerned, there was nothing we set out to accomplish other than making music we felt challenged and engaged by.
Was your previous work a big pointer in where to go with this record?
We were consciously trying to avoid repeating compositional tactics that we’d employed on past albums, whenever possible. Certainly much of our old persona remained intact in the final album, but I believe some new ground was broken as well. The songs in some regards feel more complete to me than on the prior album (‘In The Absence Of truth’), and that may in part be due to the fact that we spent more time on each individual track in the writing process.
The vocals in particular seem to be a lot more of a melodic instrument in their own right this time out, rather than taking a back seat to huge guitar riffs or guttural growls. Is this a natural progression for you, or a concerted push at a slightly wider audience?
The accessibility of our music wasn’t of concern to me when working on the album, or the vocals for it. I merely took an approach that I thought was appropriate for the instrumental passages to which the vocals were attached.
You certainly seem a lot more confident vocally…
Well I feel I have been developing my abilities as a vocalist steadily since the beginning of the band, and the parts generated for ‘Wavering Radiant’ are, I suppose, the result of this evolution and the overall trajectory of Isis as a whole.
There was talk around the release of ‘…Truth’ that you were planning on recording all of your rehearsals as a way of shaping a new album… did that come to fruition in the end, and are these the results?
We recorded the majority of the rehearsals during the writing process for this album. Sometimes we just set up a couple room microphones and went for it; other times it was a more focused effort where we multi-tracked our individual parts for more complete demos. This was certainly a very helpful tool for us in terms of the wiring process as it allowed us to analyze and assess what we were doing with greater clarity. I think this led to a greater degree of subtly and nuance in the tracks, which we were previously unable to attain.
Lyrically you’ve explored themes of water, control towers and the influence of a goddess figure in depth on previous albums, particularly on ‘Oceanic’ (more information). Is there a central narrative going through these new songs?
There are specific and recurrent themes addressed throughout the course of ‘Wavering Radiant’, but I am unwilling to divulge them. The reason for this self-imposed policy is twofold. First of all, through the repetitious process of explaining the conceptual nature of past works, the power of those concepts and my connection to them was greatly diminished by the end of the cycle. Very often, even after careful explanation on my part to people who were interviewing us, the ideas would be filtered in such a way that only partial elements of the overarching ideas would be communicated in the final print pieces, which would ultimately give the reader a fractured or truncated impression of what the album was about. Secondarily, I feel that very little is expected of musicians as well as audiences these days in terms of creating and absorbing work which is substantive in real sense, and it is our intention to at least attempt to offer more in this regard. As a part of that effort I believe leaving the interpretation of the work up to the viewer/listener is an important gesture that will hopefully encourage deeper engagement with the album for those that choose to delve into it on more than a surface level.
With each album that passes you seem to develop the Isis sound ever further – do you worry about how far you actually can push the boundaries with this band whilst still retaining the support that brought you to this point?
Anyone who has followed the arc of Isis for more than an album or two is well aware of the fact that we are a constantly evolving entity, and hopefully this is one of the things they appreciate most about who we are. I have never worried about pushing it too far; in fact I’m more concerned with not having pushed it far enough. The possibilities of what can be done are rather limitless and too often I feel that we’ve been too narrow in our approach… That said, I do feel mostly positive about the progress we’ve made over the years and about the fact that we’ve defined ourselves as an evolutionary band in general.
‘Wavering Radiant’ is out now on Conspiracy Records. Isis play the Clash-partnered Dour Festival in Belgium this week, July 16-19 – click HERE to visit the festival’s official website, and HERE to see Clash’s top five picks for the four-day event.
Words: Ben Mainwaring