Why simply review Magus when you can review the entire Thou back catalouge?
An exercise in miserabilism, Thou’s back catalogue is lined with intense musings on life, politics and futility. Few bands would be able to squeeze such a diverse discography out of such a monochromatic palette, but each time the band wring the towel, another well-full of creativity sprinkles out.
In metal’s early days, back when albums were the money-spinners and touring was a means of promotion, it wasn’t unusual for a band to release more than one album a year. This year, with zero regards for your bank account, Thou released four. Sure, they may have called the first three EPs, but the standard Thou album is a fair bit longer than your average full-length release anyway, and the EPs could each pass for LPs in their own right. Of course, the consistency of the releases may seem astounding given the short space of time in which they were all released, but given that it’s been four years since their last full-length (three if you count You, Whom I Have Always Hated), it’s safe to assume that the band have been hard at work on this ambitious endeavour for some time.
Through past efforts and collaborations with the likes of The Body, Thou had already laid clear their unique vision and dynamic songwriting prowess, but this summer, in what’s being dubbed The Summer of Thou, they showed just how deep their capacity for musical diversity really is. Rather than opting for the dreaded double album, Thou showed their talent across three mini-albums and one colossal full-length, diverting down an array of varying paths all loosely connected by that same feeling of stifling dread that comes with every Thou release.
Since the band decided to set out on such an ambitious affair, we decided to follow suit, and set off on the monolithic task of reviewing and reflecting upon both the four Summer of Thou releases and all of the band’s past full-lengths.
Combining the band’s established sound with the experimentation undertaken across the three preceding EPs, Magus is the fully realised vision of Thou‘s ambitious summer-spanning endeavour – the crowning jewel in the most gem-encrusted crown you’ve ever seen. Highlighting their masterful compositional prowess and their inherent progressiveness across a mammoth 75-minutes, the album sees Thou revert back to a more familiar sound after the sonic departure of The House Primordial, Inconsolable and Rhea Sylvia, but as always, their penchant for experimentation remains key throughout.
Approaching metal with a forward-thinking ideology that more contemporary artists could do with adopting, Thou are seemingly open to new influences – as willing to look to other modern innovators for inspiration as they are the ‘90s grunge and sludge bands that initially enlightened their doomy rackets. At times, as on The House Primordial, the band delight in touches of droning noise, adding an impenetrable weight to a style already considered extreme and bringing to mind the likes of The Body and Primitive Man. But where the latter group’s last album was full to the brim with unfathomably sweltering sludge, Thou’s compositions are more exploratory, informed by the trialling of different sounds they clearly spent the last few years (and three EPs) on.
Undeniably, Magus is nothing if not a display of just how boundless Thou now feel. Three of its eleven tracks alone would surpass thirty minutes, but even the shortest numbers – ‘My Brother Caliban’ and ‘Divine Well’ – have something new to offer, the former running from electronic beats through blackened guitars and the latter straying into ethereal gothic chamber pop reminiscent of Chelsea Wolfe.
It’s indeed impressive that a band are able to take a sound so stark and oppressive and turn it into a progressive masterclass. The rock-solid riffs and Bryan Funck’s anguished vocals are integral, of course, infusing the release with a primal anger as well as a deeper sense of raw hopelessness in the face of the instability currently permeating throughout the modern world, but in amongst the noise are occasional glimmers of hope. These lighter moments are not the focal point, though. Just like the real world, the turmoil here is frequently unsurpassable, and the record only spins off into lighter moments spontaneously, but always wonderfully.
More contemplative than their Louisiana sludge brethren in Eyehategod and Crowbar, more stiflingly intense than their grunge inspirations and more poetic with their political impulses than the ‘90s punk bands their lyrics bring to mind, Thou are well and truly their own entity, one that’s inherently forward-thinking and infinitely gifted. The Summer of Thou may be over, but we won’t be forgetting Magus anytime soon.
If The House Primordial is to be considered The Drone EP and Inconsolable is The Acoustic EP, then Rhea Sylvia, the third and final EP to be released before Magus, is most certainly The Grunge EP. Funck’s vocal range has never been explored so vividly previously, drifting from the guttural growls we know and love to languid Layne Staley-esque croons. Indeed, it is perhaps the only Thou release with room for such, its less suppressing nature making it the band’s most commercial offering to date. The band’s penchant for diversity still rings true, though, as they mess with both the grunge and the sludge blueprints to once again prove themselves one of the most groundbreaking names in contemporary metal.
Inconsolable is one of the most surprising offerings in Thou’s discography, throwing away the horrible distorted guitars and growls for acoustic folk-inspired songs. The results sound like a gorgeous hybrid of Alice In Chain‘s acoustic EPs, Maudlin Of The Well‘s more stripped-down ethereal moments, and ’90s slowcore pioneers Red House Painters. Inconsolable shows a whole different side to Thou, and is just as masterfully constructed as their heavier releases. It also happens to be painstakingly beautiful. But to top it off, it proves that Thou are thinking of a grander, wider, more conceptual perspective with their music and art.
The House Primordial
Thou may be known for an individualistic strain of blackened sludge characterised by both a suppressive intensity and a melancholic ambience, but The House Primordial seemed unique even amongst such a distinct discography, focusing as it does on a more unforgiving sound that rivals the impenetrable aura of Primitive Man. Though their past efforts have been based around lyrics of anarchist poetry and a latent grandiosity (see 2014’s Heathen), The House Primordial is largely instrumental and features an influx of drone and noise. Ambient textures did not leave their sound here, they merely shifted in function, bolstering the industrial assault more so than offering any hints of respite.
You, Whom I Have Always Hated (w/ The Body)
It’s easy to take for granted just how big a deal a collaboration like this was to forward-thinking, underground metal. Two of the scene’s most prolific bands came together, not to divide a 7″ into two distinct halves but to unite, as if they were one, for a full-length release. Given that it’s made by two acts known for pushing boundaries, You, Whom I Have Always Hated (and it’s predecessor Released From Love) is certainly unique in sound and atmosphere. The bands aren’t fighting for the limelight, their styles actually run in tandem to create something singular, cohesive and more than the sum of its parts. Given the track record of those parts, that’s quite an achievement.
On 2014’s Heathen, Thou are explorative. This goes beyond the instrumentation, which takes on clean vocals, brass and strings in pursuit of a rich, complex sound by turns reminiscent of Earth’s later work, the drawn-out hardcore of Moss Icon and the very groaning of tectonic plates. More than this, Bryan Funck and company made something sublime, cognizant and diverse, treading between lyric and instrumental with such deftness that the album barely feels its 74 minutes. Sections emerge, topple and fade with impeccable timekeeping, leaving the listener in constant anticipation, a structural imitation of the groove underpinning Thou’s goliath riffage.
Released in 2010, Thou’s third full-length album featured some of their most emotionally affecting work up to that point, quite something for a band who have captured the feelings of despair, dread and melancholy like no other. Summit is a simultaneously beautiful and ugly listen, a doom album drenched in the oppressive atmosphere of sludge as stifling as the Louisiana swamps. However, it’s not without its softer touches too, as the band take occasional forays into more melodic territory, something the band would explore more fully later on in their career. Summit was the album where we were first able to witness the potential that would be delivered on later albums such as Heathen and this year’s beautiful Rhia Sylvia.
Words like “crushing” are often used as positives in the world of metal, and whilst the term is certainly apposite for Thou’s colossal second LP, you’d be remiss to forget the mournful tones and pessimistic world-view that also fuelled it. “We have paved the roads that have led to our own oppression” was the line that opened Peasant, a fierce introduction to the poetic anarchism that lines the album, whilst musically it walked the line between raw anger and stark anguish. Even when the band managed to find a more accessible groove, the vocals were laboured, the atmosphere repressive. Peasant was the sound of a band searching for something more insightful, an ambitious endeavour that would soon lead to greatness.
Thou’s impossible lengthy back catalogue may not start at their first full-length, but Tyrant is certainly a good starting point. It’s a rawer slab of abrasive sludge, but though the heavy fucking riffs and tumultuous screeches are integral, Tyrant is not entirely averse to the notions of melody and atmosphere; even the title-track opener diverts briefly into more profound dreamier textures. Through the albums listed here as well as a host of singles, EPs and splits, Thou have shown their penchant for exploration. Tyrant was perhaps a touch more rudimentary than its predecessors, but for Thou, that still means being considerably more interesting than their contemporaries.
Magus, Rhea Sylvia, Inconsolable and The House Primordial are out now. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr, Chris “Frenchie” French, David Burke, Adam Pegg