A Beginner’s Guide to the music of Thou
Next week, Louisiana metal band Thou will release their fifth album Magus, an impressive next step for a band who’s gradually been building up their sound into a devastating mix of heaviness and emotional intensity. That album follows a trio of EPs released earlier this year, including the droning, abstract The House Primordial, the subdued and acoustic Inconsolable, and the immediate, grungy Rhea Sylvia. And though it might seem like an outlier for the band to issue four releases in a single year, it’s actually not at all outside their M.O. In fact, it’s practically par for the course.
Formed in 2005 in Baton Rouge, Thou have built up an impressive discography that’s both absolutely thrilling to dive into and incredibly complicated to untangle. The band has undergone a striking evolution in a little over a decade’s time: From their earlier, sludgier releases influenced by vintage New Orleans sludge metal, often which showcased a more politically-minded directness (see: “Smoke Pigs”), on up to their more intricate, poetic and melancholy recent material. Their music is loud, crushing and powerful. It’s also deeply moving at times, and more often than not a lot of fun (and it’ll almost certainly catch you off guard). They also record so much material that one album’s recording sessions will almost certainly yield an extra EP or two, and that’s before getting into their collaborations with The Body, or their split releases with the likes of Kowloon Walled City or H.I.R.S., among others. And a lot of it can sound dramatically different.
“By virtue of the kind of music we play, it’s hard for people to conceive of us liking things outside of a certain spectrum, or being accessible to other scenes outside of that spectrum, I’d love for that conception to change and be challenged a bit with people,” vocalist Bryan Funck recently told me.
With three new EPs already out and a full-length due next week, the time is ripe to offer a more thorough dive into the band’s catalog as well as to offer a suggested method of getting started with their music. The easy answer would be to suggest their five full-length albums, but that overlooks a great deal of the band’s material, not to mention the fact that they sometimes do great things when working with other artists. With around 30 releases to their name, some of them out of print or hard to find and some of them with some overlapping tracks, here’s our five-step beginner’s guide to the music of Thou. (This order works great, but if anyone wants to shuffle these releases, that can work too.)
If the question is “where do I start with Thou?”, then this is my answer. A middle point between their sludgier two early albums and the more exploratory, even elegant compositions on their next two albums, Summit found the band pushing beyond the typical arrangements of metal and including instruments such as piano, violin and horns (courtesy of The Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship Orchestra?, which once included Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra as a member—worlds collide!). As such, this is a surprisingly pretty album for how slow and dark and heavy it is. But there’s a great deal of melody in standouts such as “By Endurance We Conquer” (their closest thing to a black metal song), “Grissecon” and the album’s breathtaking closing track, “Voices In the Wilderness,” a song that’s so towering and heroic it feels like an instant classic. Even though apparently it was a last minute inclusion on the album—a fact I learned because Bryan Funck made the effort to comment on an article I mentioned it in last year. So, it started out as a “bonus track,” then ended up on their follow-up EP, The Archer & the Owle, which also included “Summit (Reprise)”, since both of those tracks weren’t on the original vinyl edition. This year’s Gilead reissue of the album makes up for that by basically adding all of the Archer tracks and spreading out to two LPs. The tracklist for this might have been in flux for a couple years, but now it’s settled: Throw everything on there and make a good thing even better.
(2018; Deathwish Inc.)
With Thou, there are some very clear extremes in their catalog, from the heaviest to the most experimental and, yes, the most immediate. With most bands it’s best to start with immediacy, but my thinking on the matter is a little different. It’s best to hear a balance first and then spiral outward to experience their farther reaches. But Rhea Sylvia, their newly released EP, shows what Thou sounds like when the melodies are at the forefront, and it’s fantastic. Written entirely by guitarist Matthew Thudium and inspired heavily by grunge bands like Alice In Chains, Rhea Sylvia is Thou in concise, catchy form. “The Only Law” and “Deepest Sun” are truly anthemic. And “Restless River” showcases their rock riffs at their strongest. It still sounds like Thou, but with the drone elements dialed back, the doom elements on a shorter leash, and the hooks front and center. By mainstream standards it’s still pretty gnarly stuff, unlikely to ever end up on terrestrial radio, but it rules. That said, it’s an outlier. So while I’d absolutely recommend this release, best to follow something like Summit, which here it does.
There’s an argument to be made for starting with Heathen, and it’s a really good argument. In fact, it goes something like this: It’s the band’s best album. Or at least it’s tied for best (more on that soon). And like I said in the intro, these five releases can essentially be swapped in order, but one of the reasons I didn’t start here is because of how overwhelming an album Heathen appears to be. Comprising 10 tracks total, the album is divided into four parts with three brief interludes in between longer compositions. It’s a logical choice for sequencing, considering only three of these proper songs are shorter than 10 minutes apiece (and opener “Free Will” is 14!). So yeah, Heathen is long, and fairly dense for that matter. But it’s also arguably prettier than any Thou album before it, and even without the aid of strings or horns (though the gorgeously ethereal vocals of Emily Williams help). The band taps into a more mournful doom metal sound, and builds up their dirges from more haunting, subtle beginnings much of the time. The opening to “Feral Faun,” for instance, isn’t too far off from the shoegaze of Cloakroom. It’s not as immediate as Summit, but it’s all the more breathtaking when the full spectrum comes into view.
You, Whom I Have Always Hated (with The Body)
(2015; Thrill Jockey)
It might seem counterintuitive to place a collaborative EP in this first-five starter set within the expansive Thou discography. But essentially half of Thou’s catalog comprises either split releases or collaborative works, and a couple of them are with industrial-sludge duo The Body. You, Whom I Have Always Hated is the best of them, and also the one that finds Thou adapting to a slightly different approach. The two bands are natural collaborators in that they’re each extremes of how a band can interpret crushing heaviness. This release is somewhat of an interesting change of pace for both bands; while Thou lends The Body’s wall of noise a little more groove and, in some respects, melody, there are also more shorter tracks here, suggesting that Thou is capable of delivering a bite-sized ripper in the right context. Plus there’s a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Terrible Lie” that’s absolutely disgusting. (This was also released as a compilation with their other The Body collab, Released From Love.)
(2018; Sacred Bones)
The last proper non-collab full-length that the group released is, to date, one of the strongest releases to bear Thou’s name. And based on the first single “The Changeling Prince” alone, readers should already have some indication of the kind of epic scope of the album, albeit one balanced with a level of accessibility that’s remained a constant throughout the band’s career, however intense or abrasive their sound. Magus is a stellar next step for the band, balancing moments of massive, crushing heaviness with an attention to detail that reveals the beauty and subtle melancholy of their compositions. This (plus the other three 2018 EPs) is why Thou have become my metal MVPs this year, as well as likely for years to come. And truthfully, if this were already out, I might suggest readers start here. It’s that good.
Also recommended: From here, seek out the band’s first two albums, Tyrant and Peasant, which aren’t miles apart from their other full-length releases, but don’t have quite the same ambitious breadth. They do, however, reveal more of a sludge sound in the vein of influences like Eyehategod, but given the uniquely melodic treatment that Thou imbues all of their material with. Likewise, The Archer & The Owle is a great companion piece to Summit, but since Gilead has already paired those two into one release, it’s not like it takes any extra effort to seek out.
Advanced listening: The band’s compilation of early tracks, Oakland, isn’t representative of where the band is now, but it does have some of their best tracks, including the kickass “Smoke Pigs,” a track about police brutality that, well, smokes. Listeners would also do well to check out their other two new EPs, The House Primordial and Inconsolable, which are both quite good but each a bit outside Thou’s typical approach, the former being a noisier drone-metal set and the latter a quieter, heavily acoustic set featuring vocals from KC Stafford and Emily McWilliams rather than Bryan Funck. Starting with each of these releases will probably confuse first-time listeners, but after digesting a greater portion of their discography, it’ll all begin to make sense.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.