Thou - The Archer And The Owle - LP (2011)

Labels: Robotic Empire
Review by: Smith

Thou have been commanding a good deal of attention in underground circles for the last couple of years due to their impressively prolific output without any seeming compromise in quality or consistency. Since 2007 they have release no fewer than fourteen 12″s (including three full-length albums), four 7″s and a 10″, with yet more releases on the way, and a good amount of gigs under their belts. Their industry and commitment is therefore beyond doubt. Equally impressive is their focussed aesthetic, as manifest in their distinctive, often sumptuously packaged records featuring medieval wood-cut style artwork or Bosch-esque ‘Danse Macabre’ scenes. Add to this their engaging lyrics and sometimes ferocious social critiques, and it becomes clear that this band know what they are doing, skilfully executing a wealth of musical, visual and lyrical ideas.
So what’s their new LP like then?

Well for a start the artwork and the packaging is as pleasing as ever. The pristine white gatefold has a shiny spot-glossed cover depicting a parliament of owls on the front, whilst the back and centre-fold show archers from ancient Greece and the middle ages accompanied by lyrics and quotations in heavy gothic font. Despite what this suggests however, this record is not quite business as usual for Thou, as it turns out to be a bit of a rattle-bag collection rather than a deliberate and cogent album.
Thou’s great strength lies in adeptly combining old and new, familiar sounds integrated with more experimental ideas and unconventional genre cross-pollinating. Whilst the spine of their sound remains rooted in the Sabbathian blues metal tradition, their song structures are often varied, incorporating elements of black metal, post-rock, sludge/doom and aggressive vocals. Nowhere better is this demonstrated than with the opening track, ‘Voices in the Wilderness’. Quite possibly their finest moment to date, and certainly my personal favourite Thou song.

From shimmering cymbals and portentous bass rumble, the guitar introduces the opening figure, cutting through the mist with an articulate high-register melody that evokes a mysterious Eastern feel through it’s subtle harmonic shifts. As the rest of the band comes in, the second guitar joins in unison with the lead, conjuring up exalted archaic images; trading ships off the shores of Byzantium, or a royal procession through the Indian monsoon, full of silver and gold shimmering in the humid heat. This soon opens out into a brief reprise of the swirling, dream-like intro before making way for the main riff, an inexorably heavy 6/8 forward surge with a crushing one-chord chug underpinned by pounding double-bass drums. These contrasting opening sections manage to be both musically dextrous and immediately appealing and catchy to the ear, a serious achievement for a doom metal band down-tuned to F#!

Everything drops away as the final part is introduced, a classic piece of doomed-out riffage, but rather than being content with simple low-end devastation the lead guitars begin to trace an ethereal harmony over the destructive foundations, almost like the gold-leaf outlines on a medieval religious text. This majestic riff slowly dissolves until just the bare bones of the melody remain, starkly outlined by heavily reverbed acoustic guitar, piano, and solemn choral voices. This sort of thing doesn’t normally appeal to me as such multi-instrumental arrangements often seem contrived, pretentious and full of faux-maturity. In this case however, the haunting Plagal outro is the perfect realisation of Thou’s vision and musical skill as the listener can almost feel themselves standing in a candle-lit cathedral at evensong. Amazing.

The next track however threatens to take us from the sublime to the ridiculous. Regardless of your opinion of Nirvana, Thou’s cover of ‘Something in the way’ is both ill-judged and out of place here. Brian’s usual acid-throated rasp is replaced in an attempt to recreate Cobain’s morose monotone, but it fails to capture the confessional intimacy of the original. Other than the obvious down-tuning, Thou bring nothing new or surprising to their rendition, and the contrasting vocals of the chorus seem rather silly with harsh screams followed by clean ‘ooh-ooh’s, whilst the ramping up of the loud/quiet dynamics is all too predictable.

Nirvana and Cobain seems to be somewhat of an obsession-cum-fatal weakness for the Baton Rouge troupe. Their live show has been known to contain various Nirvana songs and there has even been muted talk of a full album of cover versions, akin to their ‘Through the empires of eternal void’ 12″ (consisting purely of Black Sabbath covers). Whilst their version of ‘Sifting’ (on the ‘Baton Rouge you have much to answer for’ 12″) brilliantly magnified the sludgy, gritty dirt-grunge of the original, ‘Something in the way’ is much less well-suited to Thou’s natural sound and style, so its inclusion here can only be regarded as at best an aberration and at worst an annoyance, disrupting the mood and flow of the record.
Continuity-wise, it’s bad news again with the arrival of track three. ‘Summit revisited’ is an instrumental piece, layering trumpets, horns, timpanis, and cymbals upon an undertow of dark noise. The effect is fascinating and wonderfully atmospheric with it’s unsettling, edgy, stark brass. My objection to its inclusion here is simply that it bears no relevance to this collection of songs and seems out of place. At the end of the ‘Summit’ album the track worked excellently in resolving that collection of songs, whereas here it seems to have been merely thrown in for the sake of it (‘Voices in the Wilderness’ and ‘Summit revisited’ were originally the final two tracks of the ‘Summit’ cd, but were not included on the 12″ version due to time restrictions, hence their inclusion on this record).

Side 2 starts with ‘Bonnet Carre’, and thankfully Thou are back to the real business of slowly caving our skulls in with masterfully depressive low-frequency doom. Again the melancholy lead motifs are present, but this song feels even more brooding and bleak than anything on side 1, with no significant shifts of pace out of the time-honoured funeral trudge.
The final two tracks are both covers of Pygmy Lush, a band I’m not familiar with (I have since discovered that they feature ex-members of Pg. 99 and play a mixture of acoustic folk and noisy hardcore). Whether or not these version are faithful to the originals I cannot speculate (it seems unlikely), but Thou certainly play them with gusto and conviction.

‘Cold World’ starts with an extended section of swampy slow-motion eighth notes, the shredded vocals struggling to rise out of the guitar mire. There is absolutely no change in tempo throughout, just the addition of a piano (?) towards the end, making this the most straight-forward track on the record.
The second cover, ‘There There’ is also not immediately recognizable as the work of another band, save for the obvious change in lyrical style when one consults the inlay. Thou successfully appropriate the song as their own, beginning with typical snarling vocals and sluggish blown out guitars, but this suddenly gives way to a quiet, introspective guitar part accompanied by delicate female vocals that bring to mind a more menacing version of latter-day Slowdive. With a sharp howl of feedback this is swiftly swept aside by the battering of loud guitars and drums in a long slow build up. Just as a wistful post-rock melody emerges through the density, the climax reaches fruition, the drums begin moving forwards and within a mere two bars everything collapses and vanishes in a supernova of feedback. This has a strange effect, leaving the listener at once both disappointed and intrigued, as if having fleetingly glimpsed something beautiful only to have it dashed away, successfully creating a sense of ambivalent sadness and euphoria.

There is no doubt that this record is worth investing in, if only for the brilliant opening track and the wonderful packaging, but die-hard fans and perfectionists may wonder whether Thou have sacrificed their normally unwavering consistency and coherence in their desire to continue rapidly expanding their vast catalogue of releases. Treated less as an album and more of a tying-up-of-loose-ends, ‘The Archer and the Owle’ still satisfies in delivering yet more of Thou’s well-rounded, non-generic doom.