By McCray Sutherlin
Each December as critics start churning out year-end lists, many music fans eagerly check the number one slots for their favorite acts. For Red Stick locals, it’s rare to see a familiar face topping the list over more mainstream musicians from the west coast or northeast.
But this past December, Pitchfork — possibly the country’s most widely read online source for below-the-radar music — chose one of our own to top their list of the top metal albums of 2014.
Thou, a Baton Rouge-based metal band with members now scattered throughout the United States, dominated 2014’s competition with their latest LP, Heathen.
Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy described Heathen as “painful and raw, but melodic and transportive,” split between “throat shredders” and “moody acoustic interludes.” For a band that strives for a sound somewhere between harsh and agonizingly contemplative, the praise feels affirming.
Heathen marks the band’s fourth LP, rounding off the more than 20 albums, EPs and splits they’ve released together.
The album stands out amongst other metal releases of 2014 by intertwining gentle melodies with grueling vocal content — sometimes preceded by slow and beautiful intros that draw the listener deep into the song before a single word is uttered.
Possibly Thou’s most popular song, opening track “Free Will,” is an epic 14-minute ballad full of heavy distortion and begins with a hauntingly subtle interlude that builds for nearly 5 minutes before vocalist Bryan Funck howls a chilling instruction: “Open your eyes.”
The band came together under relatively organic circumstances, with bassist Mitch Wells and guitarists Andy Gibbs and Matthew Thudium in high school together, performing on the weekends at Wells’ parents’ house.
But despite their homegrown roots, Wells said that geography hasn’t had much influence on their sound.
“Musically I think we’re all coming from drastically different places,” Wells said.
Thou draws on inspiration from many different places, from other metal bands like Isis and Pelican to jazz drummers such as Elvin Jones and renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
However, drummer Josh Nee added that Baton Rouge does inspire their lyrical content to an extent.
“We have an EP called Baton Rouge, You Have Much To Answer For that rails against the political and social backwardness this town exhibits from time to time. If you’re not into LSU Football culture or chain stores or restaurants or Jesus, this can be a very frustrating place. But it is home, and there are people and things here I love— I’ve just had to look a little harder to find them,” Nee said.
Unlike many bands today, Thou prefers all-ages spaces over large venues or clubs — staying true to their DIY roots.
“I think the main thing is that people will be there for one reason only— to listen to the bands,” Nee explained. “You’re not fighting bar noise or dealing with disinterested people who are just there to party. Also, going through these types of channels sometimes requires promoters to get creative; we’ve played shows outside in the woods powered by generators. We’ve played in comic book shops, record shops, art galleries, a taqueria, et cetera. It can be a cool experience to see a band in an environment you’re not used to watching music in, so we like that aspect of it, too.”
“I think it’s mostly about being inclusive,” For Wells, it’s about being inclusive to all fans of metal and music in general. Putting an age restriction on seeing live music is “pretty bogus” to him, given his own childhood fed on concerts.
“The first concert I can remember seeing is Pearl Jam and The Ramones when I was…nine? 10, maybe? My parents took [us], and it is something that has stuck with me ever since. That experience was huge. If I hadn’t gone to that show because it was 18 & over I’m not sure I’d be the person I am today.”
When asked about their favorite venue, Nee replied, “ABC No Rio in New York City is one of my favorites. Shows are always packed, the crowd is lively, and there’s $1 pizza two doors down. What more could you ask for?”
Locally, Thou favors smaller venues like Spanish Moon, Lagniappe Records, Red Star and Chelsea’s Café for their thoughtful, brutally introspective, enthralling style of performance.
Thou will hit the road in 2015 with European dates in April, as well as potential American and Canadian tours later in the year. Though some of the band has dispersed to California, they’ve got a few splits and EPs on deck for recording soon as well.
“I sort of anticipated we’d be slowing down a little bit once Andy and Mitch moved across the country, but I guess Master Funck had other plans,” Nee said.
If you’re interested in catching them live, head over to Sisters in Christ record shop in New Orleans on February 28. Future dates, free downloads and all other information can be found at www.noladiy.org/thou.