Assessment: THOU Navel

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Amid collaborative projects alongside Emma Ruth Rundle, Nirvana interpretations, and Gaming soundtracks, Baton Rouge mainstays Thou have upheld a steady dose of powerful sludgy doom across their extensive journey. This goes to demonstrate that when a band has honed their sound, there are still numerous avenues to delve into within their labyrinth of slow-moving riff adoration and gravelly growls.

Perhaps owing to vocalist Bryan Funck‘s unconventional approach, the underlying themes of radical politics and unconventional philosophy may not immediately surface on initial listens. Nonetheless, this seems to be the driving force behind Thou‘s recent record Navel. With a harsher, more hardcore-infused sound in comparison to their 2016 LP Magus, Thou delves into the murky depths of human consciousness led by primal fury.

There’s a touch of irony in titles like “Narcissist’s Prayer” and “I Feel Nothing When You Cry”, which might serve as a coping mechanism for the stark cynicism. Particularly with the former serving as an opener, it sets a crushingly nihilistic atmosphere with a delightfully grimy riff plodding on as Funck concludes his theological rant with “It’s time to perish… So perish.” The faster tempo of the latter track may catch many long-time fans off guard. Not to worry, Thou hasn’t veered into metallic hardcore territory, but it’s certainly intriguing to juxtapose the driving rage of this track with a mosh-worthy Zao song like “Five Year Winter” (a track Thou has previously covered). Call it sludge-core if you will, but it’s evident that Thou sought to challenge their usual inclination towards ponderous despair this time around.

It’s also worth noting that only four tracks on this album exceed the five-minute mark—a surprise for this genre. This immediacy works wonderfully for the mid-paced intensity of “Emotional Terrorist”, allowing it to tap into Thou‘s hardcore roots while maintaining reverence for infectious riffs. Thou has consistently exuded a punk ethos within their doom, so witnessing them crank up the frenzied aggression in “Unbidden Guest” not only offers a refreshing change but also feels incredibly organic. The weightiness of bassist Mitch Wells‘ deep undertones and the grittiness of guitarists Matthew Thudium and KC Stafford‘s tones remains intact, but Tyler Coburn‘s drumming propels the group into a more vigorous headspace. Even during phases of droning, repetitive feedback, his percussion injects urgency where it could have otherwise led to musical stagnation.

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The shift from brooding to aggression also enhances a track like “Lonely Vigil” beyond the confines of its sludge doom structure. Clocking in at a mere three minutes, it charges straight ahead with layers of dense distortion and frequent tempo shifts. It illustrates how just a dash of haste can transform a song from hazy contemplation to frenzied activity in no time. “The Promise” demands a unique dynamic to merge Emily McWilliam‘s tranquil vocals into what essentially amounts to a hardcore tune, complete with an impactful breakdown. Playing this for hardcore enthusiasts will likely result in a flurry of spin kicks. Nevertheless, Thou remains grounded in sludge. The riffs retain their smoky, dark essence, and Funck‘s vocals remain hauntingly resolute.

Navel‘s heightened energy effectively upholds the enveloping production of Magus, ensuring tracks like “House of Ideas” are as suffocating as they are aggressive. As one of the album’s lengthier pieces, the intricate soundscapes deftly fill the spaces during its prolonged interlude of ambient textures and mesmerizing rhythmic patterns. There’s even a tasteful guitar solo at the climax, featuring backing vocals from one Michael Berdan of Industrial outfit Uniform. Similar to sludgecore counterparts such as Admiral Angry or Black Sheep Wall, even a more explicitly doomy composition like “I Return as Chained and Bound to You” maintains a persistent momentum. Whether it’s the drummer slightly pushing the tempo, or the guitarists incorporating more embellishments and fewer sustained notes, this isn’t doom intended for zoning out. The ambient elements serve to evoke emotion, rather than merely act as filler.

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Ironically, the most hypnotic track on the album turns out to be “Panic Stricken, I Flee”, akin to the style of a band like Conan. The relentless double-time groove gives a buoyant quality to the chugging riffs, pushing listeners into a corner where they have no choice but to surrender to the sonic explosions. The juxtaposition of Funck‘s more flowing vocal delivery and even hints of Melvins-inspired guitar meandering rounds out the track neatly. In fact, Navel adeptly sidesteps Thou‘s customary doom approach, with the closing piece “Siege Perilous” truly standing out as quintessentially Thou. Dissonant, abrasive, and full of ire, the album concludes with a potent dose of visceral oblivion.

The primal wrath at the core of Navel remains palpable, cementing it as one of Thou‘s most remarkable endeavors to date. Fans of long standing will still encounter the molasses-coated riffs and robust tones they’ve come to anticipate over the band’s close to two-decade history, yet that injection of hardcore vigor breathes new life into their established sound. It truly serves as an excellent entry point for newcomers keen on delving into Thou‘s discography without navigating the extensive catalog of over 50 releases. It strikes directly to the core, offers ample value, and seamlessly integrates its heightened energy without compromising on the sheer adulation for riffs.

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