Few bands manage to alternate between grimy sludge metal, rapturous climaxes, and odyssey-like noodling the way ISIS does. Coming out of Boston after the grunge and hardcore scene had begun to give way to alternative rock and “core” variations on metal, ISIS was a band that always had big ideas and a constantly evolving sound. It’s hard to say whether Wavering Radiant, the album from which the image above comes from and the group’s final LP, is necessarily a “final evolution” of the group’s sound but it definitely reflects the growth in artistic maturity that ISIS has gone through. I could spend all day going over the intricacies of the record and its music, the story behind the band and its prolific frontman Aaron Turner, but given that this blog is supposed to be about the album covers so let’s get right to that.
The art was done by Aaron, who’s also worked on album covers for other bands, and is perhaps the most surrealist of his work. Quite a few of his pieces focus on colorful and slightly warped landscapes but few mimic the concept of a dreamscape better than this album. Prior albums from ISIS were photographic in nature, Celestial featured a single overbearing tower, Panopticon a bird’s eye view of a city, the Red Sea a blackened image of a sea surface, and Oceanic had a single illuminated space of bathypelagic ocean. It was only on their last two albums, In the Absence of Truth and Wavering Radiant, that Aaron’s art became more abstract. The most noticeable shift that Wavering Radiant has compared to older records is its orientation: it’s one of the few albums to evoke the feeling of looking up. Blue tendrils/fingers reach upwards towards a blotted night sky similar in gradient to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The music reflects this upward sensation, the album has a generally brighter tone overall compared to earlier ISIS records with keyboard work that wades through higher pitched tremolo strumming on the guitars. In keeping with the darker aspects of metal; though, the art features a night sky which is also exemplified by plotting bass lines and Aaron Turner’s bark. It’s a fascinating duality that shows off the best of ISIS’s writing ability musically and in the scope of crafting particular imagery reminiscent of the album cover.
A friend described Wavering Radiant as “drugs in music form” and its an apt comparison. The free-form nature of the music and cover art could be equated to an LSD hallucination or some other psychedelic. For myself, I prefer to look at it as proof of the old adage that music is a drug in of itself.