Review: Thou ‘Umbilical’

In the few weeks between the announcement of this album and its release, there has been such an abundance of material written about Thou that it’s been hard to keep up. As a band who are known for not giving a whole lot away about themselves, certainly not in the traditional means, this album release definitely feels a bit different.

Thou 'Umbilical' Artwork
Thou ‘Umbilical’ Artwork

It’s unsurprising, given the quality of material they have put out over the last six years, that so many people want to talk to and write about Thou (hell, I am one of them!). And while they’ve been around for close to twenty years now, their work over this last half a decade or so has really taken them to another level of admiration within heavy music.

2018 was a huge year for Thou, seeing the release of three sublime album length EPs that each showcased a concentrated version of the band’s different facets before their remarkable fifth full-length album Magus elevated them to completely new heights of both critical claim and artistic merit. In the intervening years, there have been two highly lauded collaborations with Emma Ruth Rundle and Mizmor respectively, as well as two collections of covers and a video game soundtrack, along with a whole load of touring (as well as posting on Instagram about comic books). They’ve been busy, though it doesn’t feel like their work ethic has changed that much.

What has changed is their approach, because while their music had got increasingly heavy in feel through the years, they had also fully embraced a lighter touch. That is something wholly missing from Umbilical, and I for one am glad of it. While I adored Magus and the 2018 EPs, and particularly the Emma Ruth Rundle collaboration May Our Chambers Be Full, there was something jolting about the enveloping abrasiveness of Myopia, their collaboration with Mizmor. It was a reminder of just how wonderfully heavy Thou can be, a reminder of a Thou that produced some of the most devastatingly heavy music I have ever heard across their first four albums.

Apparently, during its creation, the band saw Umbilical as a return to the style of their early records, and as a sort of ‘anti-Magus’; an album to completely contrast with that record’s grand sonic ambition with a fierce, streamlined, tight and impeccably crafted set of songs. In this, they have entirely succeeded. If there is one thing about Thou that I sometimes struggle with, it’s that their songs can have such opaque melodies and structures that across a whole album, it isn’t always entirely gripping. On some listens, it really can be, but on others, it can feel a bit vague.

There is nothing vague about Umbilical. At forty-eight minutes and ten tracks, it is, for Thou at least, a concise album where nothing feels out of place and nothing feels unnecessary; on the contrary, everything on this album feels entirely necessary. And while they might be smothered in grimy sludge, you cannot doubt the immediate catchiness of some of these songs.

I Feel Nothing When You Cry has an undeniable hook that appears through some of the dankest, dense layers of noise the band has ever produced. Narcissist’s Prayer opens the album with one of their best ever riffs and utilises the classic songwriting trope of basing a song around one hook before introducing a second equally good hook and then binding the two together into one utterly magnificent mega-hook. House Of Ideas begins with a mash of chunky, brutal as hell riffs before ascending into the kind of slow, elephants marching type passage Gojira might have written had they grown up on Melvin’s rather than Metallica.

they’re dragging that dark underground up to the surface and making it clear for everyone to see in all its filthy sonic wonder…

The album’s title must also be considered an indicator too. If there is one thing Thou have always been clear about is that they love grunge, and see more of a connection to this style than they do most heavy music genres. One of those covers collections they released, Primer Of Holy Words, is entirely made up of Nirvana covers recorded through the years, and often debuted during their Nirvana tribute shows.

The similarity between Umbilical and a certain foetal themed Nirvana album is hard to imagine as a coincidence. It came at a time when Nirvana feared they had sold out, something Thou also talked about in interviews, and as a reaction, it showcased their hardest edge when many thought they might continue in a less aggressive vein. As such. there are several tracks on Umbilical which feel full of grunge such as Emotional Terrorist, Unbidden Guest and Panic Stricken, I Flee. And honestly, if you’d told me that The Promise was a cover of some obscure early Nirvana b-side, I would totally have believed you.

The other side to Thou which has changed is the introduction of third guitarist KC Stafford to join Matthew Thudium and Andy Gibbs. Having seen Thou live twice, once with two guitars and once with three, the difference in their sound with three feels subtle yet massive. It’s a shame that KC’s beautiful vocals don’t appear on the album, but particularly with the slower tracks like the closer Siege Perilous, the crushing doom of Lonely Vigil and the self-referential I Return As Chained And Bound To You, the feeling from those three guitar layers provides a noticeable elevation.

It’s a totally different way of using a three guitar set-up, so don’t expect any flashy triple guitar harmony leads, but instead, enjoy a three pronged attack with harmonising layers of fuzz and feedback. The width and depth of sound it produces live is brilliantly replicated on the record, and producer James Whitten has once again done an incredible job of capturing this. It also gives the drums of Tyler Coburn and the thunderous bass of Mitch Wells even more rhythmics to bounce off, and with the generally more mid-paced tempo of the album, they really hit with a visceral force.

Throughout all of this, vocalist Bryan Funck provides his consistently harsh and maniacal scream, a vocal style which is equally impressive for its relentless nature as its acidic tone. Thou’s lyrical themes and styles have developed over the years, but their anarchic politics and societal views have always had as much of an inward view as an outward one. Lyrically, Umbilical definitely has an overarching theme which feels quite personal to the band, being authentically self-critical whilst also embodying the certain distant grain of hope for humanity which has always come across in their music.

Ironically, for a band worried about selling out, Umbilical is probably their most accessible album yet, if only for the fact the songs are so incredibly well written. The vast, winding, enchanting paths of old are replaced with an urgency and energy that always came across live but was sometimes less obvious on record. There are parts of Thou’s sound that, on reflection, I do miss on this record, but in the actual moment of listening, I can’t say that this album could be any better than it is.

Does that mean Umbilical is their best record yet? Maybe, but with Thou, it’s almost impossible to say. What is certain is if they wanted to take their sound back into the dark underground from which they came, they have failed. Instead, Umbilical feels like they’re dragging that dark underground up to the surface and making it clear for everyone to see in all its filthy sonic wonder. Not everyone will like what they see, but those who do will absolutely adore it.

Label: Sacred Bones Records
Band Links: Official | Bandcamp | Spotify | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: Will J