Thou- Umbilical (Album Review)

May 31, 2024


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Thou will turn twenty next year, and the Louisiana based sludge/doom band has been a regular fixture in the underground for most of that time.  Whether it’s due to the combination of crushing riffs, subtle melodies, and unrelenting vocals or the numerous collaborations they’ve done over the years, Thou has remained a force to be reckoned with and have added different elements to their sound over time.  Since 2018’s Magus the group has released plenty of material, but it has either been in the form of collaborations, compilations of cover songs, and even video game soundtracks.  With this amount of variety long-time fans are likely wondering just where they’d go next, and this year’s Umbilical answers that with a more direct and punk edged effort.  Coming in almost half an hour shorter than its predecessor, Umbilical still has some of the slow burning grooves but also spends just as much time attacking listeners in a more direct fashion.  It’s an approach that pays off, and with melodies and unexpected transitions still lurking underneath the surface there’s still plenty of substance to be found.

Compared to some of the slower build-ups utilized on Magus, Umbilical goes for more direct force and often sounds like the aural representation of the churning mass of bodies you see in a large mosh pit or crowded concert.  Opener “Narcissist’s Prayer” is a great showcase of this, as the grooves have this back-and-forth rumble that makes it feel like you’re being pushed and pulled by waves or some other powerful force.  It’s as dense and destructive as you’d expect from a sludge adjacent band like Thou, but the driving rhythm at the foundation of the song keeps things moving a bit more briskly compared to others in the genre.  There are already hints of experimentation at play here, as around the four-and-a-half-minute mark you get the sudden squeal of a guitar that also sounds a bit like a distorted harmonica.  As you make your way through Umbilical the band moves between more straightforward attacks and slightly longer numbers that go for a bit more nuance, but it’s worth noting that even the longest tracks are significantly shorter than much of Thou’s discography.  Songs like “Lonely Vigil” and “I Feel Nothing When You Cry” seem built for violence, fusing bleak and tense tonality with heavy hitting riffs and drum work that comes across like it wants to hurt you.  On the other end of the spectrum, “I Return as Chained and Bound to You” continues the ebb and flow of the weightier grooves but takes the foot off the gas pedal ever so slightly and lets some somber melodies seep in.  There’s a lot more hardcore and punk to the rhythms and tempo, and the more compact approach to writing works well with the low-tuned sludge and doom grooves as it makes everything have more impact without being overstretched.  Umbilical still has a lot of nuances baked in that give the material more variety than you might expect, and whether that’s the more rock ‘n roll slant of “The Promise”, alternative rock melody towards the end of “Panic Stricken, I Flee” or the almost industrial pulse of closer “Siege Perilous” there’s plenty to unpack.

One constant since Thou’s formation has been just how abrasive Bryan Funck’s vocal work is.  Funck is definitely up there with some of the most intense the sludge genre has to offer, reaching ear splitting levels of distortion and raspy pitches.  With some of the more direct attacks and slightly faster tempos this makes the performance on Umbilical manage to hit even harder than some of the band’s past discography, which is hard to imagine when you go back through their catalog.  It’s certainly grueling in some respects given the extremity, but the slightly more compact forty-eight-minute run does make things more manageable.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the performance is one-dimensional, as there is variation to the delivery and deviations in pitch over the course of the album, but Thou remains singularly focused on aggression in this regard.

Even in a more compact and hardcore/punk influenced direction Thou still offers unexpected flourishes and bleak atmosphere that continue to set them apart.  They certainly are focused on bludgeoning, dense riffs this time around and hit with a bit more actual force compared to some of the atmospheric and emotional weight that was mixed in on some of their previous full lengths, but there are still melodies and other sections that manage to get under your skin.  Not every direction Thou has gone in has fully clicked with me, but the way the sludge, doom, and everything in between comes together this time around hooked me early on and kept me coming back to discover everything beneath the surface.  It’s a very different feeling record than Magus but finds the group reaching the same heights.  Umbilical is available from Sacred Bones Records.

-Review by Chris Dahlberg