The Drop Cord: Thou on one of 2024’s Best Metal LPs, Umbilical

Thou’s new album takes a brutal back-to-basics approach, all under the ruthless glare of frontman Bryan Funck. Dan Franklin speaks to him and guitarist Andy Gibbs about holding their feet to the fire, roughly dispensing with melody and, most surprisingly, The Mighty Boosh. Main picture of Thou live by Mae Cravotta

On Thou’s new full-length album, Umbilical, they’re taking aim at a band they hold in extreme disdain: themselves.

“Essentially, it’s a diss record,” says vocalist Bryan Funck. “But I’m dissing Thou.”

Funck has a problem with the growing number of “chuckleheads” infiltrating Thou’s live shows. They are drawn to the extremity of the music – the guitars tuned down almost a whole octave, the cavernous immensity of the songs, and the band’s overwhelming, inscrutable power. Sometimes they come amped up and looking for violence. They are “neanderthals”, often politically antithetical to the basic things Thou agree on as a band. From the stage, Funck can’t help but goad them when the band hits one of its particularly gnarly sections – “You like that, do you?! Eat it up, hogs!”

At the same time, Funck, now 44, is angry at himself. Pale and cadaverous onstage, in conversation he has an impish enthusiasm and unblinking intensity. He is fiercely articulate. He reckons his younger self would be appalled with the many evasions, omissions and compromises he’s made along the way: disgust at any slight deviation from the strict adherence to a DIY punk ethos.

Umbilical is the result. It is a scathing critique of the state of Thou written from his “20-year-old, militantly ideological point of view”. The album sees Funck possessed by the declamatory spirit of his past.

“Instead of antagonising the audience, we’re antagonising ourselves,” founding guitarist Andy Gibbs adds. For years the most clean cut member of the band, Gibbs now sports long reddish hair and a beard, signalling Thou’s rekindled atavistic methodology.

The album is as aggressive as Thou has sounded. Gone are the melodious, grandiose ten-minute-plus songs that put them on the doom metal map with 2014’s Heathen. Gibbs describes Umbilical as an “anti-Heathen”. It’s like being trapped in a killing cage with the band. The songs are shorter, faster, sharper. Full of straightforward, hard-charging riffs that still retain the layers of texture the band has developed with engineer James Whitten over the years. “Re-appreciating the bonehead shit we used to do,” says Gibbs. Mastered by Khanate’s James Plotkin, it is an uncompromising album all about the subject of compromise.

Funck and Gibbs point to ‘Smoke Pigs’ as a musical and spiritual antecedent for Umbilical. ‘Smoke Pigs’ is a man-the-barricades rager originally recorded in 2008, as part of the first session conducted with Whitten in his apartment studio, then in Oakland, California. An exception that proves the rule, the song is a live favourite for Thou but deviates from the downtempo destruction of many of their songs. It drips with fury at a society that tolerates, and even condones, its own authoritarian abuses.

“My dad, mom, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, son, daughter is a cop. I don’t want to hear another word about bribery. I don’t want to hear about racial profiling, broken bones, or prison rape – or another unarmed kid filled from head to toe with fifty government-issued bullets,” gargles Funck, half sneering, half screaming.

The (anti) philosophy of Umbilical is clear throughout its running time. Crush the chuckleheads by giving them the ferocity they want. Fight back through self-abuse. It’s an avowedly counter-intuitive solution, perfectly in line with Thou’s ironic, sometimes hard-to-fathom, attitude towards themselves.

For years, Thou have presented a conundrum. Out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their back catalogue is labyrinthine. Thou is a musical hydra. They don’t want to make it easy for their listeners. If anything, they wish they’d made it harder. They frequently shapeshift. In 2019, Thou played an NPR Tiny Desk concert with Funck absent and vocals handled by Emily McWilliams, Melissa Guion, as well as guitarists Matthew Thudium and KC Stafford.

That drew on songs from 2018 EP Inconsolable – acoustic, fragile and marinated in darkness. It was one of three EPs released in the run up to 2018 full-length Magus, showcasing different sides of the band. The other two: the raw drone and scattered-debris approach of The House Primordial, and, perhaps most arrestingly of all, the grunge-doom of Rhea Sylvia, featuring Thudium’s baritone Jerry Cantrell-isms.

Under this huge, voluminous cloak of music, Thou can hide themselves. They occupy a musical niche through misdirection – impossible to pithily summarise. But under that cloak is a knife. Anyone who has seen the band live, or spent hours digging into their records, knows they are deadly.

Thou mutates, expands and contracts. They collaborate compulsively. In the last five years there has been an astonishing joint venture with Emma Ruth Rundle, two compilations of covers (one solely consisting of Nirvana songs), a videogame soundtrack, and a record with the black metal solo project of A.L.N./ Liam Neighbors, Mizmor, performed in full at 2022’s Roadburn Festival. Roadburn loves Thou and rightly so. As Artist In Residence in 2019, they played four different sets at the festival. Thou embody Roadburn’s lofty commitment to “redefining heaviness” while crushing all present when the mood takes them.

Umbilical was conceived as far back as 2017, while Thou was on the road with False, Cloud Rat and Moloch as part of the North American “Friendship” tour. A few years later, during the Mizmor collaboration sessions that produced Myopia, Neighbors pushed Thou to reach back to the style of the early days of the band, particularly first two full-lengths Tyrant and Peasant. Album closer ‘The Root’ went further still, into a plangent, traditional doom sound.

Though they appropriate the tenor and imagery of high myth that suits doom metal, Thou don’t really do paganism. Funck is too interested in the notion of the “sovereign self” and travails of post-enlightenment humanity.

As he lays it out on the titanic ‘They Stretch Out Their Hands’, an old song from Peasant re-recorded with the current line-up (completed by bassist Mitch Wells and drummer Tyler Coburn), and James Whitten’s improved engineering chops, on 2021’s Hightower: “Looming stone monoliths stand silently as a pantheon of superstition burns… the false personification of nature – gives way to this passionate holocaust, to a reawakening of reason, to the triumph of the will.”

For Umbilical, Gibbs kept returning to the idea of muscle. His writing even suggested the album might go in the direction of Tool’s 1993 album Undertow, but the riffs bloomed too uncontrollably to contain such sinewy promise. Umbilical is steeped in the ethos of slowed-down nineties hardcore, evinced in the massive descending chords of album opener, ‘Narcissist’s Prayer’.

When I interviewed him after the release of Magus, Funck described approaching his lyric writing on the full-lengths like he would a scholarly essay. The first song on an album is the thesis statement. Magus, he said, was largely about “repudiating the ascendancy of victimhood ideology”. Instead, he espoused walking through the fire.

“In the sense of ego and that sense of psychic dominance. It’s more like self-actualisation, rugged individualism, in spite of all the shitty things in the world and the obstacles that are constantly thrown in your path,” he told me. Opening track ‘Inward’ was about ultimately only being able to affect change in yourself, “digging into your own personality and your own issues with a heavy, self-critical eye.”

That self-critical eye is blazing on ‘Narcissist’s Prayer’: “pretentious lingering in childish phases, the heartless hand and empty gestures, the pitiful searching for hollow pleasures,” Funck snarls. “Of compromised ideals, friendships abandoned, our works substandard, principles meandering,” he continues with the self-righteousness of his twenty-something self.

Thou by Liam Neighbors

Can it all be so simple? Of course not. But over the course of Umbilical, Thou is laid siege by the cacophony of their naive, principled selves, shouting down the tired and hardened realists they are today, battered by circumstance.

The album also seeds tension with previous songs. On ‘Death To The King And All His Loyal Subjects’, from a 2019 split with Ragana, Funck went the other way, against the false confidence born of ideology: “Servants, lie in debasement, sustained on the crumbs of pseudo intellect, dime store wisdom disguised as politico philosophy. The illusion of ideology. The imposition of precious ego. No room for opposition. One view rules all. One view ruins all.”

If you eat from the trashcan of ideology long enough, you cannot escape it, not even into dreams. The cover of the digital edition of Umbilical is a detail from a Gustave Doré illustration from 1888 book History Of The Crusades by Joseph Francois Michaud. Doré portrays King Louis VII of France leaning against a spindly, dead-looking tree at the battle of Mount Cadmus during the Second Crusade, 6 January 1148. King Louis is looking despondently to the horizon as his soldiers fall around him in defeat, and the ideology of his holy mission falls to pieces.

The other side of this is that the punk mindset is not easy. As Funck told me in 2018, “Punk to me is: you’re not holding people’s hand, you’re not giving them all the answers. It’s a hard thing to get into and like and decode.” Funck runs a record shop called Sisters In Christ in New Orleans. He used to handle the records at Iron Rail, “an all-volunteer collective that promotes radical discourse and action” according to its Facebook page.

In other words, Funck walks the walk. But then the song ‘I Return As Chained And Bound To You’ on Umbilical is an admission he hasn’t stayed the course: “Lament over an empty tomb, forsaken – I gave up too soon.” Compare it to ‘Fucking Chained To The Bottom Of The Ocean’ from 2007’s Tyrant, which frames despair as its own means of carrying on: “There is no release. There is no end in sight. Tomorrow will never come. I cannot let go. I can never let go.” Both songs still sound like being slow-crushed by millions of tonnes of water, despite the former’s abnegation of the latter.

The connection between the songs’ lyrics seems to be unconscious, though Funk admits comparing the two unlocks “the trajectory of where my mind’s been”: “‘Fucking Chained’ is definitely written from that mid-twenties, overly ideological perspective, versus something I’m gonna write now, which is not necessarily more nuanced, but it’s just a different perspective.”

Each lyric in the album liner notes (presented in Funck’s customary austere block of prose) is prefaced by a lyric fragment in red ink from another band’s song. They serve as epigraphs to each track. Whereas others come from more or less unsurprising sources – Coalesce, The Smiths, even Duran Duran – ‘I Return As Chained And Bound To You’ is preceded, bizarrely, by a fragment from the song ‘Isolation’ by The Mighty Boosh. In the episode ‘The Nightmare Of Milky Joe’, Howard Moon sings it whilst abandoned on a desert island: “The cavalcade, the jamboree/ Of life, I thought was meant for me/I never dreamed that it would be/ Replaced by this eternity”.

Funck liked to play ‘Isolation’ on Tulane University’s self-described “progressive” radio station, WTUL: “So it was just on my mind and then the idea of how it resonated with the concept of, rather than being isolated from civilization, being under duress of obligation to an idea or a process, or, in the case of that song, punk/ DIY culture.”

Where some songs seem to reach back, Thou crafted others in the furnace of their collaborators. ‘Lonely Vigil’ came out of sessions for a “secret” record Funck was working on with James Whitten when he felt Thou was at a creative “standstill”. He can’t write music, so forged its massive hook-back main riff as a piece of electronic/industrial metal and a potential new collaboration with fellow noise terrorizers The Body.

‘House Of Ideas’ was born out of a bunch of material sent over by Uniform’s Michael Berdan, who also appears on the track. Initially it was giallo-soundtrack-influenced, before Thou transformed it into something more palatable to their tastes. The ending sees them tunnelling to ecstasy on a chugging main part overlaid with a shimmering lead by Thudium. It’s stony-faced and emotionless, even by their standards.

“That outro in my mind is an exercise in restraint for us,” says Gibbs. “Because I think the older version of us would have gone the more obvious route with that: chugging for a really long time and then slamming into some gnarly riff or something. Instead, it just goes…”

Later on in the album, ‘The Promise’ and ‘Panic Stricken, I Flee’ burst with the melody that has been largely suppressed on its first two-thirds. The latter has a rolling-thunder groove that recalls the band’s cover of ‘Blew’ from their 2020 Nirvana covers compilation Blessings Of The Highest Order. ‘The Promise’ was one of the first songs Gibbs wrote for the album, before it took another direction. Suddenly it was an outlier, so in his words he “shit out” ‘Panic Stricken, I Flee’ for balance, along with lead single ‘I Feel Nothing When You Cry’, and ‘Unbidden Guest’.

The huge chorus hook of ‘The Promise’, where Thou is joined by Emily McWilliams on vocals, invokes triumphs that are rendered “desert, barren, and tame” – “Who was the promise for?” it asks. The “scourge pit”, one of Funck’s favourite lyrical motifs, also recurs here. McWilliams led the skeletal acoustic song ‘Into The Scourge Pit’ on Inconsolable, where she sang of the deep worry that undermines Thou’s abilities to revel in their successes: “There is an overwhelming fear, a rat lying hidden in the bowels, gnawing and gnawing in silence.”

“I don’t think any of us are the type that’s going to make a superlative statement about being the best, literally anything,” says Gibbs. “Because we’re the most overly self-flagellating, for sure.”

This is the contradiction (though perhaps double bluff is better) at the heart of Umbilical. On the album, despite the prejudice with which they’re treating themselves, they’ve got off their horse and dived into the mud for the fight. The record is musically fearless in the way it embraces the harsh, dissonant, punishing side of their sound whilst being some of the most compelling, listenable music they’ve recorded.

Thou live by Rodrigo Delgado Jr

Funck clearly struggles with the idea that his younger self would accommodate the “intricacies” and “grey space” that constitutes being an adult. He simply doesn’t think that version of Bryan Funck would be proud of the band or their behaviour in recent years. But things are changing.

“Just the way we interact, when we get together practice and stuff,” he says. “I think it is a lot different than it was even a year ago. So I definitely feel like there’s… I’m hopeful. I’m not a totally nihilistic person.”

Where the lyrics lash out with self-criticism, the music is its own defence. Umbilical’s more hardline musical approach would impress the teenage Gibbs in his eyes: “I’m always thinking about when Matthew and I were kids, if we had been Thou fans as kids, what would we be mad at? Am I making my teenage self proud with what I’m doing? And I think the idea of getting harsher as we get older, is something that my younger self would be proud of.”

Umbilical is all about the mangle that is reaching midlife and approaching twenty years in the same band. In a statement accompanying the record, the band writes that is “most especially for the weaklings and malingerers, burdened by capricious indulgence, hunched by the deep wounds of compromise, shuffling in limp approximation, desperately reaching back towards integrity and conviction.”

What I look forward to on their next album is giving their forty-something selves the right to reply. If anything, that promises an even edgier, brittle album – full of the resentments born from being ground down by reality: “You think life’s really so straightforward?!”

For Thou, Umbilical might be the cord that reconnects them to their conviction. For a band that shirks praise and self-validation, an album as good as this makes it especially hard to deny themselves. Conceding their greatness would make them, in their eyes and in the parlance of our times, “chads”.

When O.J. Simpson died recently, I re-watched Ezra Edelman’s 2016 documentary epic, O.J.: Made In America. In one of the murder trial’s most infamous moments, Simpson tried on the blood-stained gloves that were found at the crime scene and at his home. Initially he was sitting as he put them on, but when he realised they didn’t appear to fit, he went into what his lawyer Carl Douglas called “Naked Gun mode”. Simpson stood up, approached the jury and pulled faces as he struggled to fit his fingers into the gloves.

As Umbilical sank in during the period I watched the documentary, it occurred to me that, for a long time now, Thou has been asked if the glove fits – whether they are the pre-eminent heavy band of their generation. In their rancorous, sardonic responses – musically and in interviews – they too are clowning for the cameras. The truth is, Thou know they are amongst the best. They know they are killers. The gloves fit. Don’t let them get away with not admitting it.

Thou’s Umbilical is released via Sacred Bones on 31 May

Dan Franklin’s biography of Electric Wizard, Come My Fantatics, is out now on White Rabbit

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