Of the three nouns that make up the title of the new Thermals record “The body, the blood, the machine” it is the machine that is truly represented. Sure, the body, and the blood exist, (to sometimes slightly visceral effect) but only as a reaction to the machine itself. Humanity although present, is undeniably dwarfed by, and forever linked to this machine. Whether that machine is war, god, or a fascist state, it’s all just the same wolf in different clothing.
This, the Thermals third album, deals with these themes of oppression and authority (divine and human), as well as the preservation of identity amongst increasingly difficult odds. At points the songs seem hopeful, but its hard not to get the feeling it’s a false hope. The voices within speak of love and longing occasionally, but there is a prevailing sense of claustrophobia and desperation that trumps all.
The second track, “I might need you to kill” has Christian and Nazi imagery mingling in the same line while singer/guitarist Hutch Harris sings of –“locusts and tornados/crosses and Nazi halos”–. Later we’re informed that –“if they follow us still/I might need you to kill”–. These are characters that are given orders. They are told what to do, with only a weak, futile, inner monologue. There is nothing within them strong enough to challenge this overwhelming sense of authority.
This will be the first of many times that first person prose is used while Harris channels the voice of someone far more sinister than himself. And this is truly where the wellspring of the Thermals lyrical power is derived. With Harris speaking directly to an audience, yelling every horrific lyric with maniacal, power crazed inflection; it gets the point across while transcending every silly protest lyric that’s ever made you wince.
There’s just an undeniable strength in the ninth track “Power doesn’t run on nothing” when Harris sings –“they’ll give us what we asking for/because our god is with us/and our god is the richest”–. It’s hard to argue with that sort of logic, and when spoken with the conviction present here, it tends to cut to the issue at hand fairly quickly. It’s fascinating to hear the lyrics sung this way. The same power that fuels the corrupt, fuels the song exposing their corruption.
And honestly that is where all the interest lies in the Thermals, lyrics and delivery. Insert another singer over these same songs awash in girl problems, and that would be a problem indeed. While the music is competent in what Sub Pop has tagged (ironically, I hope) Post Pop-Punk it’s really a singer/songwriters game. Nearly any song on the record could be stripped down to acoustic guitar and voice, and carry the same impact. Sure there are organ flourishes and overdubbed guitars occasionally, but it’s very rare, and while not feeling superfluous, it doesn’t exactly feel necessary. This is intelligent, stripped down rock that cares less about guitar riffs, and more about what is coming out of the singer’s mouth.
The only song hurt by this bare instrumentation is “Back to Sea.” It abuses all of the praises I was just singing by taking the song dangerously close to the five minute mark with minimal chord changes, and just too much repetition. It is the exception however. “St. Rosa and the Swallows”, probably the catchiest song on the record, brings out a genuine loneliness I haven’t felt in a rock song in who knows how long, while “Returning to the fold” has an anthemic quality and a strong verse melody. Perhaps, most appropriately the first track “Here’s your Future” grabs you immediately with the first word on the album being God.
As you may have noticed, the most impressive thing about “The body, the blood, the machine” isn’t necessarily the music. It’s the way it succeeds as a straight forward rumination on both organized religion, and politics without delving into cliché. For evidence on the absolute difficulty of this, reference any shitty punk singer with an egg white mohawk screaming “fuck authority” into a microphone. These are not easy topics to speak about without sounding trite, or drowning under a dark sea of metaphor. On “The body, the blood, the machine” the Thermals manage to navigate all of these treacherous waters with both intelligence and integrity, coming out with one of the most moving, unique rock records I’ve heard this year.