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Obese hag - 71%

gasmask_colostomy, December 3rd, 2019

What do I look for in sludge metal? As Crowbar most famously put it, I’m curious about finding “the brown note”, which was Kirk Windstein’s way of saying that he would like to locate the single heaviest, most punishing guitar tone that would make punters at Crowbar gigs lose control of their bowels, thus allowing the band to seize a merchandising opportunity to sell branded diapers. As a result, I’m actually just as interested in the weight and tone of the sludge that I listen to as the compositions. This places me in kind of a dilemma regarding Thou’s most recent full-length Magus, because some of the songs here are deliberately dissonant and misshapen, while others almost locate that famous sonic boom. Lucky I’m listening with headphones and not on the stereo, or this could get embarrassing.

You’d better believe that 75 minutes in this style seems really fucking long, sort of like being sat on by an obese hag during night terrors that last an entire winter of hibernation. Magus becomes a bit unwieldy at times, though I have to recognize that the blending of pure heaviness, interesting songwriting techniques, and a few experiments makes for a good mix. ‘Inward’ welcomes listeners with most of those elements during its 10 minute runtime, crunching down on riffs and exhibiting the sick blackened screams of Bryan Funck’s vocals, which were my main inspiration in labelling Thou a hag a few lines ago. As the album lurches onwards, however, the band’s preoccupation with melody grows more and more evident, ‘Transcending Dualities’ utilizing both guitarists to counter fat chords with haunting backing, mostly in the form of snatches of clean playing or ringing motifs. They don’t usually play leads, though both 6-stringers draw the listener’s attention on most songs.

That formula sounds intriguing, yet I can’t advocate any band playing five 9+ minute songs at such an even tempo as Thou do. The drumming itself isn’t bad, Josh Nee scattering fills into the simpler sections and adding more intense beats when Thou occasionally pick up into blackened style, but try the following experiment and you’ll see what the problem is. Skip ahead to any section of the album and count the rhythm: every time I promise that you’ll be within about 15bpm of the section you just left. With a more hypnotic style, Magus might get away with a lack of change-ups in pace: with deliberately ugly vocals and plenty of counterflowing second guitar, it risks losing impact. Of course, variety is available through some clean female vocals during ‘In the Kingdom of Meaning’ and the squalling, swampy fuzz of ‘Greater Invocation of Disgust’, I just feel that more was necessary to attempt such an involved album.

For fans of nasty sludge like Cough and Eyehategod, more punishment might be a good thing, so the encompassing filth of Magus could seem endlessly appealing. For brown note devotees like me, Thou don’t do quite enough with riffing to attend to my prepped diaper, only really satisfying at length on the opener and rather more booming ‘Elimination Rhetoric’, while the songwriting generally proves nuanced but overdone, owing largely to excessive song lengths and monotonous pacing. Using interludes like ‘My Brother Caliban’ to bridge longer compositions was also unhelpful, seeing as it just turns the long songs into an even longer piece without any noticeable breaks for relief. Magus is by no means a poor effort of extreme sludge, though it’s not really for me.

Behind the Mask, Another Mask - 95%

Thumbman, December 3rd, 2019

Magus caps off Thou’s hyper-prolific summer of 2018 in stunning fashion. Leading up to their latest full length, Thou dropped 3 EPs over 3 months. Those EPs largely felt like Thou experimenting with styles that are usually relegated to being undertones in their sound. Rhea Silva felt like Thou doing grunge and atmospheric rock. Inconsolable felt like Thou goes acoustic. Magus simply feels like Thou doing Thou. It ends up being not only one of the best metal albums of 2018, but one of modern sludge’s finest hours.

Magus is surprisingly concise for an album with such a sprawling length, and for a band that’s known to have a penchant for bells and whistles. There’s the odd interlude for breathing room, but Magus is largely a behemoth of lumbering sludge and little else. The band has talked about their mutual love for the grunge music they grew up on, and while this isn’t blatantly obvious in their style, it makes a lot of sense in their song writing. Despite the length of some of their songs, they trim a lot of fat and only keep in what makes sense in the flow of the song. It makes a lot of sense that rock music is informing their song writing. The production is heavy enough to crush a city block, and honestly the best Thou have ever had. It’s heavy enough for the riffs to have no problem bludgeoning you into oblivion, but well produced enough to let subtleties like an reverb-laden clean arpeggio worming its way under the riff to slowly get its hooks in you.

The slow burning melodies are such an integral part of this album’s success. They produce an excellent counterpoint to the punishing weight of the nastier sludge riffs. The melodies function in a very subtle way; they unfold slowly and possess a bittersweet cathartic feeling. There’s a nice nod to black metal in “Transcending Dualities.” Thou actually thought about giving this album a heavy infusion of black metal, and while they didn’t go that direction, aesthetically a lot of this fits in very well with that style. The vocals are a forceful, filthy rasp that could work just as well on a black metal record. They add a dimension of desperation and amplify Magus’s miserable vibes. He breaks out some subtle clean vocals in “In the Kingdom of Meaning”, which provide some nice variation to a relatively samey record. Speaking of clean vocals, Emily McWilliam’s eerie vocals in “Divine Will” are a super cool touch. As for the rhythm section, they put in a really good effort. The drumming does really well – the guy knows how to keep a slower pace interesting and really knows his way around a war-like tom-beat. There’s not much in terms of standout bass parts, but the dude really helps keep the album sounding beefy.

While Heathen was more about visceral themes and the will to survive in the natural world, Magus turns the focus inward and focuses on cerebral themes and the will to survive your inner world (while Summit was more a middle ground between the two). Funck (love that last name lol) has said a lot of this has to do with self-criticism. I have to admit, a lot of the lyrics are very opaque and obscure, and I didn’t always connect with them to the point that I thought I would when I was just picking out key phrases. Although I reckon I’d agree with Thou on a fair amount of political issues, I can’t say I’m much of a fan of the running an id pol essay through a thesaurus approach some of these songs take (seems to be something really popular with politically minded metal bands lately, and at least it’s better than the yelling at you how to think approach of the average crust band). I guess my minor disappointment is due to thinking the lyrics would focus more on the relatable everyday struggle sort of stuff that works so well with this kind of sludge sound. When Funck breaks down and screams a lyric about inner turmoil like “behind the mask, another mask” and “I can’t help myself, don’t talk to me” it easily becomes an album highlight (this sort of thing reminds me of Charlie Fell repeatedly screaming “hoisting myself out of myself” in Cobalt’s “King Rust”).

Magus is easily one of Thou’s finest moments, and one of the best sludge albums of the last ten years. In a lot of ways, it is a continuation of Heathen’s sound, but more immediate and with less bells and whistles. The fact that they managed to keep such a long and samey album engaging is a true testament to their skills in the song writing department and their ability to craft gargantuan riffs. Magus is a must hear for anyone who’s even mildly interested in sludge metal.