Outwardly, Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Thou present as monochromatic miserablists who live their lives under a black cloud of intense loathing for themselves and everything around them. The band’s extensive discography is littered with dance floor ditties and make-out classics like “Fucking Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean,” “Rats and Mice and Swarms of Lice,” “Helen Will Have Her Revenge on New Orleans,” and the cheery like. The artwork that consistently adorns their releases generally looks like the inside of a schizophrenic 18th Century artist's mind. Meanwhile, their music errs on the side of tune low, play slow, and try not to blow your brains out on the floor.
Occasionally, a diverse or unexpected—or rather trickster/prankster side—emerges from Thou's shadows. The list of bands they have covered is as wide as it is long. Everything from Black Sabbath, Shellac, Vic Chesnutt and Nirvana to Minor Threat, Pygmy Lush, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and many more have been given the Thou treatment. One of the first times I saw them live, bassist Mitch Wells was doing his best Les Claypool: bass slung up by his nipples, fisherman’s hat tilted on his noggin while adorned in an ALF shirt. If you understand the insidiously wry and rebellious significance of the purveyors of wrist-slitting doom/sludge wearing an ALF shirt in public, then you know how little Thou is concerned about image. You should also know that you and I need to hang out more.
The band’s fifth full-length, Magus is set for release at the end of next month; in the lead-up, they’ve issued a trio of EPs all possessing vastly different sonic directions. Each EP fleshes out particular aspects of the impending Magus that arrives at the end of August. The EPs place sonic diversity in the spotlight and show how spire-high and sewer-low the boundaries of doom/sludge can be pushed.
The first EP released, The House Primordial, originally arrived at the end of May (digitally by Robotic Empire, vinyl by Raw Sugar Records). The band described it as “an ambient/noise, Supplicate-engineered, droned-out, The Body-worshipping, knuckle-dragger.” While that is a rather apt description, the ambient/noise intro of “Wisdom in the Open Air” quickly—as “quick” as these Sisyphean slab draggers can—turns toward tectonic, loaded-for-bear doom with vocalist Bryan Funck’s doing his banshee black metal thing.
From there, Thou establishes a definite pattern as the EP crawls along in dyadic chunks, alternating between mellow, spacey sparseness and their customary monolithic, stained-glass window shattering din. “Corruption and Mortal Trauma” may exude more effects pedal ambiance than the acoustic-based “The Sword Without a Hilt” and the factory-floor noise of “Prideful Dementia and Impulsive Mayhem,” but they still blaze direct paths to harrowing concrete towers of distorted riffs and earthquake drums. The subsequent production value helps everything feel as if doused in a layer of unnerving static.
Listen to The House Primordial here.
Inconsolable is the second pre-Magus release (co-released by Community Records and Gilead Media) and illustrates a huge departure for Thou, especially listening to it back-to-back with The House Primordial. This EP's songs have an elegant, subdued quality which recalls the velour-draped, smoking jacket metal of Beyond Dawn, Red House Painters' morose indie-rock, and Anathema’s early move towards alt-rock. As an indication of how far a departure Inconsolable is, I don’t think a distortion pedal is clicked on over the course of its 35-some-odd minute running time. However, the biggest surprise is the EP’s vocal direction.
A full baseball team could be fielded with Funck and all the guest vocalists. Though, given the swaying between open mic night pensiveness, coquettish lilting, smokey vocalized droning, indie-rock mopey-ness and more; I can’t even tell where—or even if—the frontman contributes. As a whole, unfortunately, the musical excitement is lacking. Many of the songs are too sparse. The vocal performances are generally strong enough to carry the minimalist tracks, but they don’t employ vocal melodies and phrasing robust enough to make the songs worth more than a cursory listen or two. Still, it’s probably the most surprising curveball the band has ever thrown; even more so than the third, Deathwish Inc.-released Rhea Sylvia.
Listen to Inconsolable here.
Rhea Sylvia is the band’s homage to melodic grunge, specifically the slow-burning, yet stadium worthy, melodies of Alice in Chains. Of course, Thou’s take on grunge isn’t going to be a complete Xerox of the Pacific Northwest. There’s an appreciable amount of influence taken from Jerry Cantrell’s playing style, Cobain’s gristly vocals, and the Melvins’ thunder. However, Thou mostly cotton on more to the lazy-eyed side of Alice In Chains’ sound; jangly chord progressions underlie a heaping helping of down-tuned rumbling mired in depressive tempos in “The Only Law” and “Restless River.” Funck’s scathing screams sound like the gates of hell opening up from halfway down his throat. The melodies and progressions are also powerful enough to show this venture into rock and grunge comes through loud and clear.
“Unfortunate Times” and “Deepest Sun” possess an exceptionally balanced combination of melody and brutality. It alone would have made me more of an Alice In Chains (or grunge in general) fan than I ever was. In lieu of a proper grunge revival—which will likely, or hopefully, never happens—Rhea Sylvia offers not only an expansion of the blueprint but also shows just how deep Thou’s capacity for diversity runs.
Listen to Rhea Sylvia here.