By Matt Hinch
“Only amidst the sea of refuse shall we find enlightenment pure.” — from “Immorality Dictates”
The ever-prolific Thou continue what has thus far been a stellar 2014 with Heathen. Their fourth full length and first since 2010’s Summit is simply stunning. The Louisiana doomsayers are sure to grab the rapt attention of listeners that only know Thou on the fringes, and cement them as veritable luminaries of emotionally-rooted doom for those already baptized in their strength.
It would be incorrect to say Thou follow any sort of formula on Heathen but you can rest assured that shifts in volume, intensity and tone will be an integral part of the listening experience. Take opening track “Free Will,” for example. It starts with a lonely guitar and gradually gains momentum. The slow build is beautifully sad and emotionally taxing. Thou then explode with gargantuan riffs and earth-shattering tone. The listener is brought low as the amps work overtime. Bryan Funck‘s half-croaked vocals are delivered with belligerent force. But they don’t sound angry or filled with malignity. His roar is beastly more for attention grabbing than for tearing down the psyche.
With the lyrics his rasp is verbalizing, paying attention is a very good idea. Heathen (except for the short, tranquil instrumentals) is lyrically poetic to the point of prayer. The thoughts conveyed are based in harsh reality, not fantasy. The goal is provocation of thought, of questioning. Themes of presence, of anti-urban sentiment, of change, run paramount. Perhaps the most powerful statement made on the album is from that immense lead track: “We are the stone that starts the avalanche/We are the cough that spreads the plague/We are the spark that lights the inferno/We are.” In fact, “we” crops up throughout Heathen. It instills in the listener a sense of togetherness. It wipes away any preachiness.
For the entire hour and fourteen minutes Thou hold the listener in an iron fist, not squeezing yet not relenting. However, the will to break free is weak. Rather, the desire for the massive tones, glacial, pulsating riffs and cascading melodies to completely embrace, penetrate and assimilate with the being is inescapable. Thou may not use sound to manifest physical monoliths from the ether but the effect on the listener, in both body and mind, holds no less impact. It’s no stretch to be overwhelmed by the urge to fall on your knees and raise yours arms in praise to the god-like walls of sound on “Into the Marshlands.”
“Feral Faun” blossoms with reverence, opening hearts and minds with an outpouring of melody in advance of the soaring doom riffs that spread like a gathering storm. Soak in the dark resonance of “At The Foot of Mount Driskill” with its feeling of self-defeat eventually being overcome. Foot-dragging lethargy and triumphant screams dominate “In Defiance of the Sages.” The riff that hits around the 0:45 mark will buckle the knees. Sustained power and warmth make the track huge but with a cold intention.
Guest vocalist Emily McWilliams lends her sweet and smoky crooning to “Immorality Dictates.” Backed by soothing, meditative ambience her words lead to contemplation. When Funck returns, guitarists Andy Gibbs and Matthew Thudium and bassist Mitch Wells conjure up a portentous ambulating riff as drummer Josh Nee abuses his kit with calculated precision. The disparity between Funck and McWilliams’ vocals is but one more accent to the balance so vital to Heathen. The balance between delicate beauty and sinister devastation, between introspection and overt aggression. Thou’s ability to open themselves up only to slam the cellar door, plunging the listener into darkness deep and oppressive is staggeringly effective.
Closer “Ode to Physical Pain” sees a massivity rise from the ambience with towering slow-motion riffs, like leaden manifestations of vibration. It’s thunderous and ponderously slow. Its evolutionary progression freezes the blood. However, gentle guitar and deceptive melodies break the heart in two. The duality is a device used to great effect on Heathen, enhancing the impact of the burdensome doom.
We’re not even a quarter of the way through the year and with Heathen we have a strong contender for album of the year. It’s dramatic and dynamic, clever and contemplative. The use of melody and infinitely dense tone molded into towering yet catchy riffs causes the consciousness to collapse inward until all that exists in that moment is Thou. Please excuse what may sound like exaggeration but Heathen is a masterpiece. The sludgy, droning doom found here will no doubt prove to be a timeless classic. Heathen is beyond civilization. Soulless urban troglodytes need not apply.