We’re releasing a limited-edition version of the new album from Baton Rouge metal killers Thou, and you can grab that over here.
Below, you can read an interview Andy O’Connor — Vinyl Me, Please’s metal columnist — did with the band’s frontman, Bryan Funck, where they touch upon trying to challenge the standards of metal. You can stream Magus at NPR right now.
One of my favorite bands of the past decade is Thou, a metal quintet from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While they take that big, sludgy sound from New Orleans bands like Eyehategod and Crowbar, they take it to beautiful places, using misery as a spark instead of an end-all. Thou have made a space for radical politics, for challenging insular punk and metal cultures, for finding yourself when you love your music but never fit in to one particular extreme subculture. They’ve really made a space in a way no other band has. Magus, out Friday on Sacred Bones, is another triumph for them, one that is less based on melody and their “pretty side” but no less enthralling or rewarding.
Magus is part of a three-record arc that began with 2010’s Summit and continued with 2014’s Heathen. Magus is the introspective record, the “self-critical” one as vocalist and lyricist Bryan Funck puts it — “Descend into the ever-widening, yawning chasm of black thought” are his first words on “Inward.” The idea for a self-critical record came around the beginning of writing for Summit but didn’t manifest until now. And it’s probably for the best. One of the ways the record is self-critical is its discussion of gender politics, something that heavy music… hasn’t been great at.
“There’s a notion of male privilege and misogyny that I’m taking a very harsh look at, and at the same time reassessing dedication to ideology over practical ways of interacting [with] the world,” Funck said.
In “Elimination Rhetoric,” Funck yells, “Awake, Awake! from the misogyny-fueled fever dream: that pestilential forced reality, that focal point of corruption, that has bred in the dark recesses and colonized our psyche, that has spread in the dark recesses and colonized our psyche.” “Transcending Dualities” also takes on a revolutionary spirit: “Our sexuality is transience and transgression. Shape-shifting through life to navigate the trench of sex and desire. Withering in meaningless conflict, drowning diversity in the shallow pool called homogeny. Yours is lost in the lapse of time. Ours is limitless form. Yours is lost in the lapse of time. Ours is limitless choice. Yours is the decaying corpse whose stench is lost in the lapse of time.” These are not the sort of observations you see from sex-obsessed and sex-starved metal dudes, this is looking toward the future, toward what should have been. It threatens to break barriers, something we could use more of.
Funck was thinking about this stuff quite a bit before #MeToo, though. A big temptation among people trying too hard to be woke (it ain’t just “critics,” it ain’t just “listeners” or “fans” or “stans,” it’s all of us?) is to view everything — especially if it’s dark or angry-sounding — through the lens of current events, everything as a reaction to the current administration. That lens obscures the worse truth that none of this is new. Music is more important than ever to make sense of how absurd everything is and how we can process it, and at the very least, keep us sane — “or spread that consciousness so it’s unbearable for everyone. Why suffer alone?” Funck quipped. That doesn’t mean we can assign a fixed meaning in the name of catharsis.
“The really harsh self-evaluation is a bit more palpable for people now, since it’s stuff that entered into a mainstream dialogue,” Funck said. “We get asked a lot ‘is the current political climate and blah blah blah’ — the stuff that’s happening is not much different than how things have been going for years and years and years. A lot of the negative aspects of society are more apparent and more brazen, it’s becoming less and less tolerable.”
A record that makes you look inside and question yourself, maybe hate yourself, is of course going to be heavier. Thou’s past records have taken a more post-rock approach to melody, which was very much in vogue as bands like Isis and Pelican were gaining traction when they started. (In other news: the mid-2000s were a decade ago!) Thou didn’t sound like either of those bands, or any band in the “post-metal” spectrum, really. Magus cuts down on a lot of the post-rock, skewing the balance toward pummeling sludge even more. “Sovereign Self” is where it is most prominent, and it gets extinguished quickly. Funck described Magus as “Heathen with all the accessible parts chopped off,” and in their minds, is a reaction to that record’s emphasis on the softer sections.
“At some point, we were like, we want a subterranean mutant sound, real harsh or whatever,” he said. “I’m interested to see how people take it, because we were real surprised — we had all liked Heathen a lot when we recorded it, but we were a bit surprised that it got the attention that it got. A lot of people probably expect us to write the sequel to Heathen.”
That’s not to say Magus is a radical shift — it’s still a Thou record at its heart. Grunge has secretly been a big part of Thou’s sound, and while it mostly comes out whenever they cover Nirvana, as they’ve done a few times in the past, it’s how the melody in Magus manifests more and more. There isn’t the balance between delicate and heavy anymore, the pleasantries have misery in them too.
“I’ve always felt we’re more of a punk grunge band than a metal band,” Funck said. “Maybe a little less Nirvana, a little more Alice in Chains. I don’t [know] how much in the forefront of [our music] the grunge stuff was, but we all grew up in the ’90s, it’s so inextricable from out personalities; it’d be hard not to pull from that in some ways.”
There’s even a bit of black metal thrown into Magus in the intro to “Dualities.” Guitarist Matthew Thudium played guitar in Baton Rouge death/black metal band Barghest until 2015, and that bit is a small tribute to his tenure in that group. While it’s only a small part of Magus, it’s something that they thought about a lot, and it fits in with the record’s overall harsher character.
“We kept talking about how we wanted a black metal feel to it, without being a black metal record. It got distilled down into a feeling of menace, of viciousness we were trying to get to,” Funck said. “If we ever did write this black metal record, it’s not gonna sound to most people like [a] black metal record. For us, anything we tackle is gonna [be] mangled through a certain lens that at this point, the Thou sound, it’s not something we’d have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”
Solitude is a big part of black metal. Does that lend to Magus’ mission of self-critique?
“It caters of a sense of megalomania than taking a critical eye with how you’re approaching the world, but maybe I’m listening to the wrong black metal bands,” Funck said.
Thou has a lot stewing under the surface, and if it didn’t call come out during Magus, it was gonna come out one way or another. Magus is preceded by three EPs — The House Primordial, all unforgiving noisy sludge (which we covered in the May edition of our metal column Deaf Forever); Inconsolable, which focuses on their softer side and is as close to a Thou acoustic record as you’ll get; and Rhea Sylvia, which is driven by Thudium and plays up their ’90s alt-rock influences. All three took core parts of Thou’s sound and isolated them into their own units. Rhea sounds the most like Thou’s full-lengths, yet Primoridal was most predictive of Magus’ direction — it’s the ugliest out of the three, and Magus does not lean on melody as much as their other albums.
Even the most devout Thou followers know they’re a lot to keep up with, and Funck acknowledges that much of their discography gets swept in favor of the full-lengths. The arc with the EPs and Magus coming later was deliberate.
“Usually when we put out a full-length, we have a chunk of material that didn’t quite fit, and we put this EP along with the full-length, not necessarily lesser material but stuff that didn’t fit the cohesiveness of what we wanted the album to be,” he said. “A lot of times those EPs tend to get lost because people are really focused on the full-length. I think this time, in our brains, what can we do to make people stop and focus on this other stuff we’re putting out that’s just as important as the proper record.”
They do appeal to record collectors, but they want you to go beyond consumer culture. I think that metal — even if Thou don’t call themselves that and distance themselves from it — can be a tool to look into yourself, to try and attain some sort of higher understanding, or get you on the path to that. Why settle for escapism?
Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas.