My own journey with Louisiana's Thou kicked off after 2008's Peasant quickly established itself as one of that year's most pleasant surprises (I straight slept on the previous year's Tyrant). This was followed by an impressive string of (mostly hard to find) EP's and split singles, before 2010's Summit saw the band top themselves once again.
It must have been either 2010 or '11, then, when I finally got to see them live for the first time. It was a SXSW showcase featuring a fairly listless and disappointing outing by the band (it's funny how SXSW is frequently – and accurately – criticized for the rushed attention to detail, and resultant inconsistencies in both sound and performance, yet in the fanboy afterglow of the packaged experience hardly anyone criticizes any particular band's set. Eh. Whatever).
If they'd come off as making the best of a bad situation I'd have just chalked it up to another of the hit-and-miss showcases one often sees under the machinations of the SXSW grind wheel, but in this case it actually seemed like the band itself was half-assing it. It left a sour enough taste in my mouth that, once Thou went back to another prolonged cycle of underground splits and EP's, I didn't exactly make serious attempts to keep up with their career trajectory afterward. Of course, it didn't help that damn near every one of these mini-releases was on a different label, few of which I just so happened to be on the promo list for.
Fast forward to 2014, and Thou are finally unleashing album four. As mentioned, it's not like they've been dormant, having recorded around a dozen low key releases here and there, a strategy that many pundits cite as being the wave of the future in the music industry; however, one of the potential drawbacks of this strategy is that there's an underlying assumption on the artist's part that these boutique releases are going to fall on fewer ears – likely just the hardcore fans, the ones most likely to be apologists anyway – so sometimes there's not quite the focus on quality that is typically expected for full length "event" albums.
I haven't tracked down enough Thou EP's to have an opinion on where they fall in that regard, but from the ones I have heard I think it's safe to say that Thou are represented at their finest in the long player format. Four of the ten tracks here exceed the 10-minute mark, and while that kind of length can feel bloated and self-indulgent on an EP that may only feature one or two such tracks, the album format offers the extended scope to mix it up a bit with shorter songs, the better to give a sense of dynamism to the whole.
You see where I'm going with this: Heathen is the Thou record I've been waiting for, not War Is the Force That Gives Us Meaning: A Two Part Analysis of Personal and Inter-Personal Conflict (a split LP with Cower from 2011. Yes, seriously). As much as Summit satisfyingly progressed the promise shown on Peasant, this new record dispenses with the bell curve altogether and establishes a brand new benchmark.
"Free Will" starts from a simmer but has nearly 15 minutes to build to a blistering, hate-filled climax. The pretentious lyrics are still there – "Relinquish those wretched controls of knowledge and experience, those conditions which hinder Desire's progress" – but so is the sincerity and spite. Though it's not always easy to tell exactly whom singer Bryan Funck is positioning himself so defiantly against, the strength of his conviction never wavers in his actual vocals. It's possible that even Funck himself is incapable of identifying a specific adversary for his non-conformity.
Fanciers of bass-heavy doom will dance a jig around "In Defiance of the Sages", the most concise of the non-interlude tracks, but also the one packed with the most dense snatches of musical ideas, from a constantly mutating song structure to some unusually compelling chord changes. "Into the Marshlands" is pretty low-end monolithic in its own right, but within a relatively more traditional doom framework, and featuring fewer flirtations with post-hardcore neck fingerings.
"Feral Faun" most successfully walks the line between the more accessible side of Thou and their oft-indulged drone fixations. Taking around a quarter of its run time to burn off the foggy haze of its atmospheric origins, the work never really resolves so much as progresses through a suite of distinct phases before ending in a prolonged fit of exhaustion.
The only misstep on an otherwise stellar effort comes toward the end: "Immorality Dictates" follows one of the obligatory two-minute "breather" tracks with a momentum-killing five minutes of plinking drone guitars and out-of-place female vocals in a kind of pretentious, pseudo-medieval style that doesn't really fit with the primordial earthiness of the rest of the album. It might have been an acceptable note to go out on, but midway through the track explodes back into a catchy sludge tune that doesn't in any way follow logically from what came before. It's a bit gimmicky, and the last five minutes of the song would have been much more welcome as a standalone song that could theoretically be culled for a single.
It's not a fatal flaw, and frankly sequencing is one area that very few bands trying to balance the extremest of metal with emotional stopgaps gets entirely right. What we should be celebrating here is the milestone achievement Thou have broken through with on Heathen, not nitpicking its minor faults. After kind of falling off the radar the past few years, this band is back and serving notice in a super fucking big way.