To zoom out from the tunnel vision of current releases and reflect on the discography of a prolific artist often reveals surprisingly shallow waters amidst tactless iteration; To stay afloat in a competitive stream of monthly releases artists often appear to sacrifice what is ‘special’ about their art, the contemplation that drives it, in order to connect with an attention-deficit consumer market. In the case of Baton Rouge, Louisiana sludge metal band Thou a unique set of branches exists within their discography in the form of EPs and ‘mini-albums’ that all serve to pull increasingly dedicated listeners towards a core lineage of their (now) five full-lengths. Absolutely any point of entry is a viable beginning be it experiment, 90’s rock cover, or collaboration; Yet none of the wildly different work done outside of their full-lengths threatens to overshadow the time put into each main entry. This is a remarkable feat and should be acknowledged. The fifth and most immediately accessible long-player from Thou thus far, ‘Magus’, undoubtedly serves to fully cure the foundation of their consistent legacy as innovators and true artists within sludge metal’s everyman ethos.
Unless you’ve some aversion to EPs, mini-albums or aren’t familiar with Thou‘s body of work 2018 has already been the ‘year of Thou‘ leading up to ‘Magus’, as they’ve released three ~30 minute EPs of varying style two in May and one towards the end of July. The first ‘The House Primordial’ felt a bit like a raw Buzzov•en demo from the early 90’s with chaotic, harsh noise driving the experience. By contrast ‘Inconsolable’, released a few days later, offered their own take on the Unplugged era of grunge/heroin rock but seen through a lens adjusted for modern neofolk; Its focus on vocals from female singer/songwriters made it unrecognizable from the rest of their discography. The third EP is where I began to feel some greater excitement for the coming of ‘Magus’ as ‘Rhea Sylvia’ by itself could have been my sludge metal album of the year between it’s Alice in Chains style harmonies and a cover of one of my favorite Crowbar tracks. So, before you dig into ‘Magus’, I’d suggest at least touching upon each extraneous release as each appears to celebrate their greater collective and the experimentation within.
When ‘Heathen’ released in 2014 I happened upon the digital purchase on a whim based on recommendations for New Orleans style sludge. A formative part of my youth was the transition away from early 90’s Hit Parader towards the cool looking bands in Metal Maniacs and Metal Edge with the two coolest sounding bands being Entombed and Eyehategod. In climbing the mountain that is “Free Will” in 2014 I was taken aback, and then above and beyond previous exploration of bands like Grief, Crowbar and Burning Witch in the 90’s. It was a rare moment that pulled me back into sludge metal after I’d written it off as a new shit-filled diaper of a bland gimmick, at least beyond that first Mastodon album. So, I’ve spent four years quietly suggesting that few albums in the sub-genre stack up to ‘Heathen’ and yet ‘Magus’ arrives raising Thou‘s profile and setting a new standard for sludge metal, at least for my tastes.
Why hold a long-winded, hissing sludge/doom metal record in such high esteem? For some of the wrong reasons, actually. Thou appears as a band that is ‘of’ my generation almost exactly in line with those 90’s rock experiences through very well curated covers of choice Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Crowbar tracks. What did “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” mean to me as a 10 year old cracking open The Beavis and Butthead Experience for the first time? A lot more than you’d think. Beyond that some representation of the NOLA sludge sound, scene, and history invokes the best kind of nostalgia for anyone as invested in Eyehategod fandom as I have been over the years. Like I said, fealty to anyone comes with all the wrong reasons; None of that bullshit really matters beyond giving me a chance to talk about myself and the point is that Thou are already an easy sword to fall onto for a lot of people and ‘Magus’ is their most accessible point of entry yet.
Of course, I’m attempting to talk you into another 80 minute doom record and you shouldn’t expect anything less at this point. ‘Magus’ is as massive as ‘Heathen’ was although the most subtle change makes a huge difference upon entry: Pacing. Where the previous album began with a 15 minute lurch forward and a slow hour of descent ‘Magus’ saunters in it’s own pocket, creating melodic interest throughout not unlike Warning‘s ‘Watching From a Distance’, at least in terms of pacing. Halfway through opener “Inward” the melodic refrain immediately signals Thou‘s intent to broaden the spectrum in use beyond that of previous albums, without losing their recognizable core sound. I wouldn’t yet consider it their ‘Odd Fellows Rest’ moment but it makes about as much of a difference to the overall Thou experience: A mix of sinister beration, a hissing snarl in protest of cruel powers that be, and a gigantic guitar tone wielded smartly by the underrated duo of Matthew Thudium (ex-Barghest) and Andy Gibbs. A bit more melody along with some extra fidelity for their same old sound.
Without a lyric sheet I was torn between interpreting the album as I saw it, or simply avoiding it’s meaning (and in turn not sounding ignorant). I’ve opted to view most of Thou‘s work as a that of anarchist independence with an emphasis on the philosophical individualism that comes with that path. The quasi-Satanist, the free-thinker, the anarchist, and the uselessly stoned computer nerd will all find a common ground somewhere under the same oppressors and the cathartic music of Thou. In all seriousness the dedication on their Bandcamp page is a beautifully written call to arms and sets an appropriately feral tone for the ensuing sludge/doom metal within. In fact I suspect it will be ‘too much’ for most outside of established sludge fans beyond shorter listening sessions. 80 minutes isn’t too much to ask for a listener with patience and you’ll have to either be enthralled by it’s sonic luster or already on board with Thou‘s ethos to take on ‘Magus’ in earnest. In that sense, they haven’t lost their extreme ‘edge’.
“The Changeling Prince” is a bright spot to cut in as it’s structure will feel familiar to fans of ‘Heathen’ and the doom riffs that begin to bulge out around four minutes in will serve as the album’s first true ‘metal’ hook. “Elimination Rhetoric” shows off guitar work that’ll be surprising to long-time fans and again, a solid doom riff running through most of it’s core eventually releases at the end of the song, in spectacular fashion. If nothing else you’ll see a pattern of build-and-release in each track and I think that will either serve as their continued legacy or most mild detraction depending on what you value in terms of song structures. My personal favorite moments are those subtler guitar moments that become more key with closer and prolonged listening; Specifically “Inward” and the previously mentioned melodic guitar work, the disorderly conduct of “Sovereign Self”, and the absolute trip that is “In the Kingdom of Meaning.”
I’m sure there is even more to say about ‘Magus’ but, Thou speak well enough for themselves with their work. At a minimum this fifth album in their discography is on par with any past releases and feels supremely related without being too similar thanks to it’s even pacing. Some added melodic interest and thoughtful advances in guitar composition make for an album sure to please any ‘Heathen’ appreciator but the old excesses and throbbing, mushy harshness of Thou remain pristine. Easily, and highly, recommended to fans of sludge and extreme doom metal.
Torches upon legacies. 4.25/5.0
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