Thou – Umbilical

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Thou Umbilical review

Bryan Funck once described his band Thou as “more of a sad band, a melancholy band, than an angry band.” He’s referring not to his own lyrical commentaries on social and political realities but rather the often mournful sounding minor-key tone of Thou’s epic doom metal compositions. On albums such as 2014’s Heathen and 2018’s Magus, they’ve increasingly built more ornate architecture out of a similar set of tools as rawer earlier dirges like “Fucking Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean.” Shortly before they released Magus, in fact, Thou reached a logical endpoint of that evolution toward more delicate grace, turning down the overdrive entirely on the mostly growl-and-scream-free Inconsolable EP. In the simplest terms, Thou’s music has only become prettier over time.

That’s likely not the conclusion one might reach from hearing Umbilical, Thou’s first proper studio album in six years. The most visceral and compact album the group have released in over a decade’s time, Umbilical is raw and abrasive, the surge of energy and ferocity of its 10 songs drawing inspiration from the group’s own roots in hardcore as well as the Nirvana and Alice In Chains songs they’ve been known to tear through in their raucous live sets. Leadoff track “Narcissist’s Prayer” is identifiably, unmistakably Thou—as evidenced by the juxtaposition of grungy, sludgy riff churn up against Funck’s throat-scorching screech—but more concentrated and highly potent.

The kind of full-throttle forward momentum that Thou adopt as their M.O. throughout the 49 minutes of Umbilical isn’t a stance that’s ever been far from the surface for the group; even amid their grander recorded artistic statements, they’ve always peppered their live sets with urgent favorites like “Smoke Pigs.” This album taps into that locked-in, all-cylinders-firing sensibility, mirroring the energy and immediacy of their live sets via 10 songs defined even more by their turbulent physicality than their emotionalism. Where a standout like “The Promise” is driven by the strength of its riffs, the group aim for sheer, menacing abrasion with the harmonic squeals of “Emotional Terrorist.”

Situated at the center of the album are the first two singles from Umbilical, and perhaps the two songs that distill Thou’s harsher aesthetic down to its most robust application. “Unbidden Guest” and “I Feel Nothing When You Cry” each gallop forth with relentless aggression, propelled by Tyler Coburn’s explosive drumming. They’re jaw-droppingly confrontational songs, but even more than that, they’re fun in the same way a punk song is with the fervor and bile dialed up till the knob breaks off.

Even at their most melancholy, Thou’s songs often carried a sense of defiance or scathing critique. Yet for how much aggression the group harbors on Umbilical, it’s rarely directed outward. Funck meditates on perceived shortcomings to living up to one’s own ideals, on “Narcissist’s Prayer” lamenting “empty dialectics, the art of building up and tearing down, of discussing all things and accomplishing nothing.” On “The Promise,” he envisions the pointless end of a questionably chosen path: “Who was the promise for? Laborious tasks that are futile and vain. Who was the promise for? Meaningless bonds that succumb to the years.” And he delivers some of his most fire-throated self-directed invectives amid the Dirt-like grooves of “Panic Stricken, I Flee,” snarling, “Forsaken to a wilderness, a self-inflicted loneliness/Manifest my arrogance of my self-centered negligence.”

An album as focused in its ferality as Umbilical doesn’t come easy, even if it feels as if they’ve pared back. More so than on any of the group’s prior albums, they took their time to pull these songs and put them back together again, often unsure of their own satisfaction with the work while it was in progress. “There was a much more rigorous editing process with this record, and that’s something we hadn’t really done before,” guitarist Andy Gibbs said in a recent interview. “We had a lot more time, for better or worse, to deliberate.” When the result is an album as fiercely powerful and damn near perfect as Umbilical, that’s time well spent.

Label: Sacred Bones

Year: 2024

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Thou Umbilical review

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