Pain and Absolution: A Review of Thou and The Body’s Collaboration

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When I was nine-years-old, the state of Colorado was engulfed in a massive blizzard. Airports and highways were completely shut down. Power lines collapsed under the weight of accumulating ice. Infrastructure was crippled state-wide. Vehicles were abandoned as citizens tried to return home on foot in the freezing weather. Many never made it. It was one of the deadliest and most severe blizzards in the history of the state, one that witnesses will likely never forget.

To my childish eyes, though, it was a wintry spectacle of wonder. I played with my friends and threw snow balls. I laughed and rolled in the snow. At many points during those two days in October, I simply stared out at the snow, mesmerized by the frolicking particles of ice dancing in the air. I found joy in the same situation in which others found pain. Such is the way of this world.

Mother nature has a primal majesty and terror all her own. Fickle and temperamental, she doles out destruction and life as she sees fit. Just as the falling rain brings forth growth and plenty in the parched throat of the Sahara, it causes deadly flash floods and untold damage in the rugged southwest of the United States. Fury and beauty are intermingled in a bizarre and captivating symbiotic waltz that deals impartially with all of Earth’s denizens. All things, good and bad, are epitomized in the natural forces of our paltry little ball of mud hurtling through space.

Here in the southern plains of the United States, we bear witness to some of the most extreme and volatile weather patterns anywhere in the nation. In the span of a year we can and will see hail, snow, freezing temperatures, ice storms, flash floods, dust storms, tornadoes, scorching heat, and relentless, prevailing wind. Always the wind blows, bringing both blessing and curse to the farmers eking out a living on this dusty firmament. These brutal weather patterns are caused by the warm coastal air from the Gulf of Mexico confronting the cold mountain drafts tumbling over the Rockies. It’s a spontaneous and unpredictable concoction that can and will wreak havoc on the best-laid plans of men.

If art reflects reality, then, it stands to reason that the glory and wrath of nature would manifest in some fashion in the myriad creations we humans craft to make sense of our world. As two dynamic forces combine to form one unrelenting storm here that ruthlessly batters the region I call home, so too do artistic forces sometimes join to put forth a devastating effort. Released from Love/You, Whom I Have Always Hated by the two reigning master of sludge, Thou  and The Body, is a testament to the fickle and insurmountable strength and beauty of our planet’s most powerful cycles. It is a force of nature, both enchanting and devastating, that entrances and punishes, gives and takes, as it sees fit.

At times, this album is a work of aching beauty and feeling, the entire spectrum of human emotion wrought from the painfully gorgeous chords and vocals. Sorrow, loss, love, joy, and grief float and drip from every word of poisonous poetry shrieked by Thou’s vocalist Bryan Funck while hopes, expectations, and fears soar and crash like a snowflake blown about by the howling wind of The Body’s voice, Chip King. The two excellent covers included on this album, “Coward” by the inimitable Vic Chesnutt and “Terrible Lie” by Nine Inch Nails poignantly transcribe fear and loss and rage into a palpable spectacle that seizes you by the heart and mind. Lyrics very rarely matter for metal songs, but when Funck snarls, “Released from guilt, released from pain,” you know there is solace in the heart of the storm. Just as that blizzard I witnessed in  my boyhood was beautiful and deadly, so also is the music on this collaborative effort.

At other times, though, the climactic might of this album is undeniable. Riffs as thick as tar bubble up from out of the ground on tracks “The Wheel Weaves as the Wheel Wills” and “Lurking Fear,” ready to choke all life. Crunching guitars and grumbling bass smash and grind like the fault lines on a tectonic plate, reducing all of man’s technological progress to nothing. Drums rise, build momentum, and collide like tidal waves in a tsunami throughout the album; the rhythm section is content to both flood a track like a slow, steady river or to consume all in a column of treacherous fills and towering crashes like a plague-bearing tidal wave. This is a collaboration that is content to lumber forward like a crawling conflagration or to strike with incomprehensible bursts of speed like lightning, as on the deadly “Her Strongholds Unvanquishable.” Through it all, the combined weight of the two-pronged vocal assault erodes and grinds like a steady, frost-bitten wind from the frozen north. Listen to King’s unrelenting wail on “Beyond the Realms of Dream, the Fleeting Shade under the Corpus of Van” and be reduced to dust.

As expected, both bands bring something special to the mix. Thou bring the treacherous and shifting quicksand of a genre born in the swamps and murk of New Orleans. Muddy, dirty, and gritty, they utilize a shifting low-end assault on the album that threatens to consume even the most steadfast of song structures. The Body bring a much more adventurous, and at times, daring element to the sound, like a freak lightning storm illuminating the afternoon sky with flourishes of brilliance and unexpected light. The two together act as catalysts for each other, resulting in an album that at times erupts with thick metallic riffs and choking, unrelenting clouds of black, ashy distortion that never really clear. Swelling feedback continually dumps ash on every track, blocking the sun and only allowing hints of hopeful light to glimmer through on select songs. At other moments, in the stillness between eruptions, the sustained notes and ponderous drum tattoos flow like a slow-moving channel of lava just beneath the Earth’s surface. The pace is the album is slower more often than not, but even amid those dreaded arctic ice floes can be found a shimmering aurora if you simply take the time to look.

Although this album is decidedly worthy of praise, it is not without its faults. The temperamental shifts leave some tracks more dire than others, resulting in a few critical songs that may receive more play than others. This slight unsteadiness could be caused by the greater issue with this otherwise stellar album. At times on the album, as in nature, one of the two forces in the reaction overwhelms and dominates the other. Some songs sound simply like a product of The Body or Thou and shine less with the genius spark of collaboration. Lastly, it would have been nice to hear more original tracks, despite the two covers both standing tall as excellent reinventions. Alas, not all snowflakes are breathtaking in their beauty and originality.

When I first listened to this album, I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it felt that something was lost in translation. It wasn’t until I was driving home in the dark through a snow storm late last week that things fell into context. This album moves and shakes with the pains of Mother Earth heaving forth a splendid and wretched creation. It is as beautiful and hideous as the devastating snow storm I remember as a child. It is a force of nature, and like any natural structure found in creation, it is a sight to behold in its own imperfection. At times, this album amounts to nothing more than the sum of its parts. At other times, though, it is peerless and undeniable, reminding us with its litany of pained hymns that we are human and nothing in the grand scheme of time. The wheel continues to turn, and I look forward to seeing how this art evolves.

NO FLUSH

Be sure to pick up the album tomorrow from Thrill Jockey and give both bands likes on Facebook.

(Photos VIA, VIA, VIA, and VIA)

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