The catalog produced by New Orleans sludge band Thou can be daunting to consider: Right now it stands at 28 releases (over 7 years) but that number could seemingly multiply at any time, without much warning. Thou also have a reputation as being one of the most intense, punishing live acts in America, with some 400-odd shows already in their rearview. Longtime Thou fans treat the band with a devotion bordering on reverence, if not zealotry. So for a newcomer, the prospect of getting into Thou can be an intimidating one, and understandably so. But today, any such ambivalence should be set aside: Thou’s new album, Heathen, is such a powerful, immersive piece of music that it reduces to rubble all barriers to entry.
Heathen is the fourth full-length album from Thou, following 2010’s Summit, but it is the best and most complete statement of their career. Where most sludge derives its power from relentless, grinding assault, Heathen achieves much wider-scale grandeur by not dedicating itself to any specific sound or tone. Huge stretches of the album are devoted to quiet acoustic or ambient passages. Even at its heaviest (and this thing gets very fucking heavy, too), the songs stay grounded with explosive melodic hooks and skyward-reaching guitars. Vocalist Bryan Funck remains a black-lunged psychopath screamer, but there are also occasional clean vocals here, cutting through the smoke like searchlights. The only constant, really, is the rhythm, which rarely exceeds that of a human heartbeat.
Heathen is a dark, bombastic, hugely ambitious album of great sorrow, but perhaps even greater beauty. When I wrote about Coffinworm’s new IV.I.VIII last week, I mentioned that 2014 had already been blessed with three sludge records that transcended their genre — all of which, come December, will be in the conversation for the year’s best metal album: IV.I.VIII, Indian’s From All Purity, and Heathen. And those are all special albums indeed, but Heathen truly stands alone. It is an album that demands and deserves obsessive attention — an album that will inspire and reward such attention, as its hooks sink deeper and its priceless, gorgeous, terrifying treasures are slowly unearthed, piece by piece.
You can stream Heathen in full over at NPR, and I urge you to do so with my very highest endorsement; you’ll be in attendance at the unveiling of an album that already feels like a classic.
Heathen is out 3/25 via Gilead Media.