Aaron Harris' demeanor is remarkably amiable considering his day job. As the drummer for psychedelic-sludge lords Isis, conjured images of irrepressibility and moodiness seem ripe for the territory, but that's just not the case. Harris is downright congenial. As he weighs in on the lengthy travels ahead of him in support of the outfit's just-released fifth album, Wavering Radiant, he talks with the nervous excitement of someone still looking to prove himself.
It is at that point that the essence of what makes Isis what it is becomes apparent. The band strives for validation, though the ears of the public are not the ones they're trying to appease. Like any true artists, the members of Isis want to gratify themselves. Unhappy to churn and burn a record of rehashed riffs and rhythms that all but guarantee casual fan approval, the group is in a mode of continual reinvention.
“With each record, the goal is to reach a point where all of us are happy with the outcome,” Harris says. “We want to be sure that it's the best it can be. It gets harder and harder to always try to top the last one, so we just focus on making sure what we're doing stands out on its own.”
To that end, Isis views each effort as a complete package. Unlike the current iTunes state of the music industry, where the single is king, the group writes complete albums with tracks more akin to symphonic movements than snappy three-minute pop gems. Listening to just one tune doesn't do the band's massive metal soundscapes justice or, for that matter, make any sense. Isis is all about context, and focusing on one track is like trying to make sense out of the middle of a conversation. From musical and lyrical themes to artwork and packaging, each Isis project is a cohesive effort carefully analyzed and assembled.
To ensure that at least a handful of listeners approach their sets correctly, Isis makes a point of dropping vinyl editions of each offering.
“Our records are meant to be taken as a whole, and I just think that vinyl is more conducive to that,” Harris says.
“There's just something about vinyl that seems more complete... like a collection.”
Wavering Radiant, while sonically evolved from its predecessors, follows the same protocol. The set is divided into seven movements—some ambient, some rocking, some dirty, some calm and some terrifying—but there is a unifying heaviness throughout that never wavers, no matter how much distortion is scraped off. Isis is a big, nasty rock band that delivers its force regardless of vehicle. Part of that may be linked to the inherent drama that comes with such epic songs, and part may simply be the way the band approaches songwriting.
Never wrapped in one nice neat package by any single member, Isis songs are built from the ground up through collaboration. One guy may come in with a slew of disparate parts lacking the glue to piece them together, and another guy may have a stack of bridge-like connectors just waiting to be wedged in. The only way to really bond them is to jam, which had been difficult on the group's 2006 effort, In Absence of Truth.
At that time, half the band was living in Los Angeles and half was in New York. The distance forced the set to be recorded in spurts, limiting the cohesiveness the band strives for. For Wavering Radiant, all members were in L.A.
“No matter what condition a song is in, we have to jam on it to really hash it out and make it ours,” Harris says. “It's been a part of our process since the beginning, and now that we can do it regularly, things feel right again.”Artistically fulfilled and ready for at least a year of solid touring, Harris turns from nervous energy to whimsical melancholy when reflecting on what's still to come.
“You go from doing the record to doing absolutely nothing and then being busy touring the world,” he says. “It's a weird kind of life sometimes, but we all feel fortunate to be doing this.”Isis plays Friday, May 15, at The Casbah with Tombs. www.myspace.com/isis.