It takes a lot more than riffs to propel a metal band toward immortality. You’re also going to need a sick-ass logo, like Metallica’s jagged points or the sharp, dermal carveability of Slayer. Something that looks good sewn or safety pinned onto a black, frayed denim vest. You’re probably also going to want a killer mascot, like Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead, Iron Maiden’s Eddie or Motörhead’s Snaggletooth—fearsome skullfaced ghouls that can be easily translated to stage props or merchandise. And in the absence of that, at least some kind of unifying aesthetic or convention, be it Morbid Angel’s ABCs of death or the burly scenes of war adorning every Bolt Thrower album.
The rules, it should be stated, don’t apply to everyone. Black Sabbath, for instance, is exempt from each and every item on this list of bullet points by virtue of being the first heavy metal band on record. And in doing so, they’ve earned first right of refusal and the privilege of making their own rules. For everyone else, though, it’s a solid checklist for entry into Valhalla, much in the same way that grades, extracurriculars and high test scores are all worth including on a college application. No guaranteed entry, of course, but good to have all the same.
Thou, in some form or another, satisfy each of these criteria but not necessarily in the same way that metal’s pyrotechnic pioneers did some 40 years ago. Their logo isn’t so much a logo but a clean and elegant Old English font, which when printed on the spines of all their albums lined up back to back creates a satisfying symmetry. They don’t have a mascot in a straightforward sense, but the weird medieval guys printed on the cover art of all of their Bandcamp releases at least sort of meets that qualification. And by virtue of their recurring monochromatic woodcut-style artwork and one-word album titles, their signature aesthetic is well established, if not one that embodies the savagery and hedonism of metal at its most emblematic.
Of course, Thou aren’t a typical metal band in most respects. For over 15 years they’ve embodied a DIY ethic more representative of hardcore, and with the leftist politics to match. Their body of work is vast and heavily comprises splits, 7-inches, EPs and collaborations, and many of their best-known songs (“Smoke Pigs,” “Rats and Mice and Swarms of Lice”) aren’t found on any of their proper LPs. They’ve covered a sizable portion of the Nirvana catalog—and they’ve done a few Alice in Chains and Soundgarden songs for good measure—and are more likely than not to call themselves a “grunge” band.
Formed in Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Thou represented a different kind of heavy music in the Bayou State. Where Acid Bath and Eyehategod brought a raw, anguished depravity to metal, partially dosed with bluesy homegrown boogie, Thou embraced a more elegant kind of melancholy—if one still harboring a similar kind of rawness and anguish. And though they’ve nodded to New Orleans icons with both reverence (their cover of Crowbar’s “The Lasting Dose”) and irreverence (“Eyehatethou”), the path they chose is one less well trodden. “I definitely think of Thou in terms of being more of a sad band, a melancholy band, than an angry band,” vocalist Bryan Funck said in 2018.
By virtue of both the legacy they inherited and the guitar tone wielded by guitarists Andy Gibbs and Matthew Thudium, Thou—and by extension their third album Summit—are widely regarded as sludge. But that hardly seems an apt description for a set of heavy music that seeks something deeper and more profound than tone itself. For all the enigmas Thou might offer (why do they have two separate Twitter accounts?), this isn’t music built on obfuscation and confusion, but rather a kind of emotional clarity.
The first of its four (or five, or six, I’ll get to that) lengthy songs, “By Endurance We Conquer” introduces the album not with bombast but by slowly opening itself up from a solitary minor-key arpeggio. It’s only when drummer Terry Gulino’s blast beats come barreling in that Thou subtly reveal the power behind their mournful aesthetic, forming a furious wall of sonic impenetrability as they rush headlong into a proper verse. The arrangement seems to mirror the emotional weight behind Funck’s growls, a message of finding power in the aftermath of suffering and survival: “Waves crash down, unrelenting, unending/We are stone shaped by the force of its abuse.”
It’s easy to simply stand in awe of the mass of sound that Thou are capable of crafting—even divorced of the intricacies of their songwriting, it really is one motherfucker of a sound. But beneath it is a beating hear that feels leagues separated from the pure escapism of metal, offering a perspective that feels more necessarily human, whether in their optimistic hopes for a better reality in “Another World Is Inevitable” (“Our most ephemeral desires and our most treasured dreams lay the foundation for a brilliant new reality“) or more carnal concerns in “Grissecon” (“The one clear way to transcend the boundaries of our corporeal plane is to merge our flesh“). And their means of arriving at these profound moments of clarity take detours through gothic violin on “Prometheus,” and tumble through fractured trickles of piano as “Grissecon” comes to a close.
The album comes to a close with the brief but elegant “Summit Reprise”—at least certain versions of it, given that Summit has been released with three different tracklists depending on format, four if you have the 2xLP Gilead vinyl reissue. A second version of an interlude from “By Endurance We Conquer,” it reveals yet another unlikely side to an already unconventional band, temporarily laying down their arms to allow in The Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? Orchestra—whose membership once included Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra—whose horns close the album, or at least build a bridge to its final act, with grace and majesty.
But if it seems like I’m burying the lede here, yes, Summit has riffs. The best of which belongs to maybe the greatest song Thou’s ever recorded: “Voices in the Wilderness.” Technically a bonus track (as mentioned earlier, format makes a difference here), it resurfaced a year later on The Archer and the Owle, and it represents Thou at their most triumphant. Even the lyrics, an indictment of empty principles and willful ignorance, feel the most essentially metal of any Thou song: “Silent pyres are heaped with the bodies of the meek.”
Funck once clarified that “Voices” wasn’t originally intended for Summit, but rather reserved for a split release that kept getting pushed back, and they opted not to sit on it any longer. They had also been playing it live at the time, which they don’t do so much anymore, though I keep hoping one day they’ll dust it off; Thou live sets, much like everything else about them, tend to go against the heavy metal rules. Of the two sets of theirs I’ve seen, one included Sabbath’s “Into the Void” up against Heathen‘s “Into the Marshlands” as a clever one-two punch, and the other featured half of their acoustic EP Inconsolable, an Alice in Chains cover and a barnburning “Smoke Pigs.” That I have no idea what the next one will be like only makes it that much more interesting.
What I do know is I’ll be ready to feel the physical vibration of their immense arsenal of sound, surging like a jolt of electricity through my bones. And more than that, I’ll simply be ready to feel. Maybe that’s not very metal, but I’m pretty sure I—and probably Thou—couldn’t care less.
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