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Thou
Heathen Robin Smith , April 3rd, 2014 08:02

Thou have doom metal's steadiest hands. Their new record, Heathen, is a half hour longer than its predecessor, 2010's already exhausting Summit, and plays like a double album – if a double album were made by a band with no interest in the meandering avenues one can go down. Heathen's slow pace is sustained to make every piece of the band's doctrine as important as the last, 'Free Will' offering the first of a dozen crushing but consistent points of order: 'There is no such thing as time'. Of course, typing out Thou lyrics is a totally thankless exercise – that phrase is an all caps, font-size fifty growl, full of the kind of nihilism Times New Roman can only dream of capturing.

Despite Bryan Funck's scorched vocals though, it's not a line that feels exclaimed – Heathen is too perfectly calibrated for that. His lyrics on Heathen are too formal to stand out as snippets or come as their own holy fuck moments. The first line of 'In Defiance Of The Sages' – the assertion that "We reject the esoteric falsehoods, the endless ponderings and useless theories of the mystic inane" – is a premise, not an aphorism. Funck's vocal performance is one of Heathen's most intriguing constants, because it makes for prose, not poetry; there's a reason his lyric sheets come in paragraphs. Outside of the record's build-ups and interludes, Funck's voice is always there, each word slurred like part of a larger poison, with a hard-won cadence that suggests this will go on a little longer still.

With its philosophically tight lyrics and hateful sound, Heathen sounds like two different things, an obliterating dissertation that makes seamless and persuasive transitions in the midst of chaos. It doesn't break its pace for a second, but the scenery certainly changes. The feedback left over from 'Free Will' folds into the beautified acoustic instrumental 'Dawn', which acts as its epilogue, as well as the prologue to the surprisingly gorgeous 'Feral Faun', a song that builds from a tranquil, anonymous post-rock tone into one of the record's heaviest checkpoints. Josh Nee's drumming on 'Feral' sums up Heathen: it's unwaveringly precise, but torrential, too. Whatever Heathen is, it is unceasingly.

There's an impressive dynamism to Heathen, just not at the forefront. It shines through modestly, and makes Thou's brand of harsh doom metal sound almost accessible. 'At The Foot Of Mount Driskill' marries the band's sinister practices with chords that sound humanely elegiac, and a heart-breaking riff that momentarily unhinges the song from its squalor. It's a monolithic wall of a song, and carries some of Funck's most gutting vocal work, too – although, as ever, his words are just audible, so that their lessons can be learned. But there's beauty to 'Mount Driskill'; beauty ricochets around it.

That's what makes Heathen special – not that it's beautiful, but that it gets to be. Thou aren't locked into their sound, letting light filter into it the way a truly dissonant noise rock song might. Even with the most methodological approach to genre and performance, Thou can flick a switch and become something else. The riff on 'Mount Driskill' rolls in like a breeze, not in order to fend off the record's onslaught of refusing doom, but to emphasise it. 'Into The Marshland' comes into one of the record's spriest and most giddily traditional metal riffs, one that springboards the record away from its ascetic vibe. And then there's 'Immortality Dictates', a song with a continuous and entombing build, bookended with Emily McWilliams' clean, weightless vocals – they make the song's climax sound like a hopeless descent and its outro a fucking relief. Compared with Funck's barked lyrical essays, McWilliams uses her lyrics sparingly and significantly, singing "And you know that I love you" as if she needs to say nothing more on a record that is constantly explaining itself. In these moments, Heathen opens up. It's an unforgiving record, but not a closed system.

Thou aren't new to this kind of slight juxtaposition. In fact, Heathen sounds like a finished version of Summit, a record that also tethered the band's vengeful sound with clarifying moments. 'Prometheus', that record's centrepiece, boasted the band's most dramatic pause for breath, climaxing with an enlightening guitar riff that sounded distinct from the song before joining up with it. The difference is that on Heathen, Thou seem more interested in tying these moments together. The riff on 'Mount Driskill' belongs within its song, captured as a burst of life amidst its sludgy confines. Heathen’s biggest climaxes and prettiest motifs also feel more inevitable than those on Summit; on a shorter record, those moments have a particular lucidity, but on Heathen you can feel them coming – they're subordinate to something bigger and more impossible. It's telling that Heathen doesn't end on 'Immortality Dictates', with the brief respite of McWilliams' vocals.

Instead, Heathen ends on 'Ode To Physical Pain', an endlessly cruel song, broken up only by short breaks from Nee's percussive ritualising and an obscure outro of fragmented guitar that signals the band's exhaustion. It's a slow, gruesome march, seeking out melody only in order to sabotage it. Its lyrics – the record's least scholarly – make for a good conclusion to their stern philosophy: "Seek comfort in endurance / be consumed by struggle". If you get to the end of 'Physical Pain', you've lived those words. Heathen is a doom metal siren song – its beauty is incidental to a forever kind of pain.

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