When it comes to metal in 2014, ambience is the new substance. Now that the ‘70s-incluenced Sabbath worship is dying down and the thrash revival is nothing more than a dirty memory, it seems that every haircut with a boner for Kevin Shields is trying to shove shoegaze and reverb pedals into every possible subgenre. Results vary (I like Deafheaven, so fucking what), but a lot of it this dreaminess and emotion in modern metal is starting to feel forced. Fortunately, there are still bands like Thou who prove that ambience and substance go hand in hand. These are not trendsetters. These are not curmudgeony metalhead lifers. These are simply individuals deeply dedicated to the realization of their own art.
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Since 2007, Thou has delivered an uncompromised vision of metal deeply rooted in doom, but with the hypnotic sprawl and shrieking yelps of black metal. Combined with a deeply-rooted passion for DIY culture, a consistent visual presentation, and a mysterious air about them, this passion has made them one of the more appealing metal acts to emerge in the past decade. Each of their releases builds upon the last, which is no rare feat, considering not only how prolific the band is, but also the quality of their work. Now, the New Orleans doom titans have emerged after a one-year drought of new material with their most masterful work to date. Crushing in its dark, heavy beauty, Heathen builds upon the band’s nearly flawless foundation for one of the best metal albums of 2014 so far.
Even though it is an incredible collection of music, for the uninitiated, Heathen is not necessarily an easy album to listen to. It is loud in every imaginable way. It is incredibly long. The melodies, though present, are buried under heavy walls of reverb. These are the trademarks of Thou’s sound, but they definitely take some getting used to. It is, however, probably the best place for new listeners to latch onto Thou. As strange as it may sound, this is the most clear and refined Thou has ever sounded. Make no mistake, because Heathen is heavy as hell and Bryan Funck’s unmistakable shrieks are as fierce as ever, but Thou as a whole seems more comfortable with their own style than ever before.
Heathen begins with “Free Will,” a 14 minute slow burner that is reflective and a perfect example of Thous’s style at the same time. It builds slowly, heavily, never truly gaining speed so much as gaining layers. It paralyzes listeners with its calm brutality before Funck jumps in around the 5 minute mark. Even then, his harsh screams are merely another layer in the slowly burning fire. The following track, “Feral Faun,” is probably where the album’s melodic sense is most clear, as the swirling guitar is never fully submerged beneath the wall of sound.
Themes of revolution and a return to nature are emphasized throughout the album’s lyrics (which can be found on their site, along with free downloads of most of the band’s catalogue). “Into the Marshlands” particularly speaks to these sensibilities, as Funck calls for an abandonment of intellectual thinking for a return to the simplicity and beauty of natural life. An embrace of more base emotions is emphasized on “Immorality Dictates,” which features beautiful female vocals for the first half of the track before Funck returns, while closing number “An Ode to Physical Pain” is just that. An unholy fusion of Earth and Wolves in the Throne Room, where Thou advocate an abandonment of all we are taught in society and a full immersion into our natural instincts.
As noted before Heathen is very long at nearly 75 minutes. There are numerous interludes and enough variance in structures once you make it through the album a few times, but the first listen of Heathen may be a test of endurance. However, it is a truly powerful album and demands repeat listens. Thou will never grace magazine covers or headline large clubs, but history will prove them to be one of the most important metal bands of our time.
Ricky Vigil spends a lot of time thinking about punk rock and playing video games. He lives in Salt Lake City, UT, where he works with teenagers and wonders what could have been if he had followed his boyhood dream of becoming a professional wrestler. He also makes comics you can read at rickyvigil.tumblr.com