Review: ThouUmbilical

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The development of Thou‘s sound has been curious to track for the past decade. 10 years on from Heathen, Umbilical is Thou’s first non-collaborative record since 2018’s Magus, an album that, while occasionally teasing a larger atmospheric direction ultimately felt comparatively lethargic and lacked the cohesion of their earlier work. Their material since has consisted of collaborative albums with Ragana and Mizmor that, while solid, didn’t really seem to articulate any clear musical future for Thou. This was followed by the career highlight May Our Chambers Be Full with Emma Ruth Rundle, which was a softer, more melodic but no less oppressive sounding album.

This left Thou in a strange position in 2024; with no clear direction, Thou followed on from these collaborative releases with compilations like 2020’s Blessings Of The Highest Order (a record of Nirvana covers) and 2021’s Hightower (a collection of older material alongside re-recordings) which implied a band looking backwards, re-examining their sound and influences between solo full-lengths. Umbilical sees Thou almost 20 years deep into their career, and that is made clear throughout the entire record.

“Narcissist’s Prayer” isn’t an obvious choice of opener; it has a more considered pace in its writing and takes a while to fully bloom near the halfway mark. It’s a track that immediately articulates Thou’s knack for subtle compositional dexterity, something a lot of sludge bands don’t have—a track that immediately defines its rhythmic identity through a lot of start-stop playing and slow-burn writing.

“Emotional Terrorist” is a shorter, bass-heavy track that initially has a more rocking, driving pace punctuated with this sick staccato chorus that feels violent as fuck. Its second half slows down, finishing on a crescendo that juxtaposes the reverbed lead guitar with the sudden intensity and uncharacteristic speed of the percussion. “Lonely Vigil” is solid but feels less essential, following a similar mid-paced first half/musical-break-to-crescendo second half pattern. The production of Umbilical doesn’t feel especially dynamic, so when tracks have to rely on their writing to stand out, a song like “Lonely Vigil” feels more transient and less memorable.

A lot of Thou’s records in the past have felt oppressive, massive and heavy, but to me Umbilical is them at their most violent sounding; a track like “House Of Ideas” showcases this in two ways. Firstly, there’s a pronounced hardcore influence in its first half. It’s a track that has a surprisingly bouncy feeling to it, probably the most conventionally mosh-friendly track from Thou, full of pinch harmonic breaks and low-tuned chugging riffs. Secondly, it has a slow-build bridge that explodes into life near the end of the track, really evoking that feeling of bubbling-under-surface anger and hostility. It’s a solid track, though its fade-out ending seems uncertain and directionless.

The lead single “I Feel Nothing When You Cry” is unsurprisingly the most digestible song on the album. A more frenetic, immediate track structured around tremolo-picked, ascending patterns, it’s nonetheless a track that should feel a lot more distinct and memorable than it does. “Unbidden Guest” feels like it does more in a similar runtime, mostly due to its main riff just feeling more urgent and unstable, bounding high-low in a way that compliments the vicious delivery of the vocals.

Returning to more familiar dirge sounds, “I Return As Chained And Bound To You” is colossal, and is in many ways vintage Thou—caustic sludge metal tempered with moments of pensive, quieter instrumentation to exacerbate the explosions of distortion.

“The Promise,” inversely, seems totally atypical in just how catchy an earworm it has for its chorus. If ever there was a crossover sludge metal track, this is it: one that manages to highlight really slick, melodic lead-work without losing its gruff exterior. “Panic Stricken, I Flee” is almost a meeting of the more obvious melodic sensibilities of “The Promise” with the more obvious harshness of the proceeding tracks, and as the penultimate song works as an interesting summation of the record in total. “Siege Perilous” ends the album with suitably gruff, thick aplomb, its highlight being when its distorted riffs are accented with hazy background arpeggios.

Umbilical is interesting because despite being among Thou’s most immediate and accessible records, it also feels iterative. It isn’t a radical departure or complete upheaval of sound; instead it’s just a refinement of form, which, when it sounds this good, is always a boon. It isn’t the sound of Thou developing their style in a significant way, but as an album that—by Thou’s admission—is so entrenched in the sound and attitudes of hardcore, it’s appropriate that it sees Thou sticking to their guns, sticking to a sound that’s theirs. A record that’s reflective without feeling reductive, and another solid entry in Thou’s catalog.

3.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Umbilical is out now on Sacred Bones and Bandcamp.

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