Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Album Review: Thou - Heathen

Album Score: B+
Of all the extreme metal beasts wandering the musical underworld, black metal and doom metal are among the most fearsome and strange. From the darkest depths of the human psyche these creatures arose, boring their way towards the light from frostbitten forests and sweltering swamps. The latter gave us early doom mavens Exhorder and Eyehategod, but somewhere down the line Louisiana birthed some truly terrifying monsters like Thou. A quintet specializing in music designed to break souls, Thou has tempered its blackened doom for nine years through three albums and a menagerie of EPs and splits. At the core of Thou’s ideology is a distaste for societal constructs; an abhorrence of the artificial paradigms ruling our world. Heathen, then, is both a logical continuation – and the boldest chapter yet – of that treatise on humanity’s true face.

Despite the band’s black metal label, Thou spends most of Heathen in a grisly mire between doom and post-metal, a landscape dominated by the kills of Rorcal and early Neurosis. Opener “Free Will” makes Thou’s mission abundantly clear: tearing down its audience’s psychological walls, notion by notion and thought by thought. The track churns and swirls for over fourteen tortuous minutes, its grimy guitar arrangements growing increasingly monolithic until its life finally slips away. Toward the end of a rather long exposition, things begin to sound almost hopeful until vocalist Bryan Funck arrives to restore order, his mid-range rasp cutting through the din just enough to be deciphered by the trained ear. What Funck lacks in range he makes up for in ferocity and tone, as his vocals are highly consistent in timbre and distortion throughout Heathen – think Ihsahn tuned down a fifth.

If you haven’t yet been scared off by the time “Free Will” utters its dying breath, subsequent interlude “Dawn” offers some insight into Thou’s modus operandi. In stark contrast to the charred dirge constituting most of Heathen, the album’s three interlude pieces – “Dawn,” “Clarity,” and “Take Off Your Skin and Dance in Your Bones” – consist solely of eerie acoustic guitar pieces. Beyond these, Thou includes several passages that could hardly be identified as metal of any kind if not for their gradual transition towards the outfit’s trademark sound. “Feral Faun” exhibits perhaps the album’s purest evolution as it grows steadily from ambient drones into pounding power-chord riffs, taking a page straight out of the Isis playbook. Later on, “Immorality Dictates” simmers uneasily for half its ten-minute lifespan as female vocals intone, “And you know that I love you / Here and now, not forever / I can give you the present / I don't know about the future,” in one of the most unsettlingly relatable codas in recent memory.

This is not to imply that Thou sacrifices any bit of its suffocating power; rather, Heathen’s ethereal forays serve to amplify its emotional spectrum immensely. Consider for a moment what Two Hunters would sound like without Jessica Kinney, or Still Life without “Face of Melinda.” Even the sheer magnitude of Heathen, which clocks in at a staggering 75 minutes, supports the notion that Thou is merely elaborating upon that which made its previous efforts so successful. If its predecessor Summit was a capstone to Thou’s efforts to that point, then Heathen shows the band beginning a new chapter on the foundation of a honed artistic identity and growing fan base. While longtime disciples will undoubtedly be pleased, those new to Thou’s brand of extreme metal will find Heathen to have uncommon replay appeal for its niche. Not only is that a tremendous compliment to the band, but it is a testament to Thou’s ability to craft music challenging enough for hardened metal fans while leaving the door open for the heathen masses yet to be converted.

Track List:

1. Free Will
2. Dawn (Interlude 1)
3. Feral Faun
4. Into the Marshland
5. Clarity (Interlude 3)
6. At the Foot of Mt. Driskill
7. In Defiance of the Sages
8. Take Off Your Skin and Dance in Your Bones 
(Interlude 4)
9. Immortality Dictates

10. Ode to Physical Pain

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