Thou – Summit
Thou are a case study in running a band in a post-label world. They do three essential things for DIY bands today: (1) give music away for free, (2) interact with fans, and (3) tour. All these activities are related. The first maximizes the number of fans; the second maximizes the dedication of fans. Together, they maximize revenues on tour from sales of both shirts and music. If a band is good enough, and good enough to its fans, fans will be good to it.
Here's how Thou have developed a rabid and rapidly growing following. They have bypassed MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter entirely. (Their MySpace is a giant link to their website.) They have put up almost their entire discography for free download on their website here, with lyrics available to read here. They have interacted and conducted business vigorously with fans via their thread on the Doom Forever Forever Doomed forum. Since April '08, the thread has reached over 100 pages and over 1000 posts. During this time, the band has released nine splits with other bands. This is all smart networking; knowing bands and fans ensures bills to play on and floors to sleep on. During this time, the band has played hundreds of shows, and also put out five EP's and three full-lengths.
(Note: Thou's way, of course, is only one way. I expressed misgivings regarding bands interacting with fans here.)
The latter is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Thou. In two and a half years, the band has had few breaks between releases. It is almost always putting out an EP or split or compilation. This is probably partly due to the need to have new product to sell while on tour (see comments in this post on long discographies). But, and this is probably unintentional, it also ensures that fans pay attention to each song. If you have nine songs, and you put them out as three three-song EP's instead of a nine-song full-length, people are more likely to remember all nine songs. (They are also more likely to buy the songs in small installments instead of all at once.) Few people listen to albums from start to finish now, so people's memories of albums tend to cluster around the first few songs. Thou fans don't suffer from such partial memories. They request songs with a specificity that veteran bands would envy.
A side effect of constant prolificness is that Thou are essentially learning in public. (I know the feeling - try keeping a daily blog for years.) Instead of the stepwise progression of bands that release albums, they show basically a straight line of improvement. I get the feeling that Thou release everything that they write, and that much of the material on their splits and EP's wouldn't make it onto their albums. I downloaded everything available from Thou's site and listened to their discography in chronological order. The only releases that perked up my ears were the full-lengths and the split with Salome (download here). Everything else was inessential, if enjoyable to various degrees.
But a side benefit of learning in public is that it tempers fan expectations regarding change. Thou are an extremely different band from when their current incarnation with vocalist Bryan Funck began. If they had limited their releases to full-lengths, fans might have been put off by the degree of perceived change. Instead, Thou's sound has shifted a little with each release, smoothing out the ride for fans. (Imagine if Metallica had put out EP's that documented some strange, organic progression from ...And Justice for All to the Black Album.) Thus, I've not seen any Thou fan complain about Summit (Gilead Media, 2010), even though it's the band's most adventurous release.
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Summit is to Thou as Oceanic is to Isis: a statement of a new identity. The bands sound very different, and have very different aesthetics. But their artistic trajectories have been similar. Both bands began in sludge, a metal subgenre with narrowly defined parameters: downtuned, slow, yelling. Both bands then expanded beyond those parameters. Isis' sound softened and became more textured, while Summit is melodic and flirts with black metal blastbeats. Oceanic's main "foreign" element was female vocals, while Summit's is also feminine: a chamber ensemble interlude composed by Funck's partner. Thou don't carry themselves like a typical sludge band - big, bearded, beer-bellied - so perhaps this element will find further expression in the future.
Summit is also the first release of Thou that justifies their hype for me. Their roots are shallow; according to Funck, they sort of stumbled into writing heavy music. (See here.) Unlike 99.9% of sludge bands, their origins don't come from Eyehategod. (They come from the public process of self-discovery described above.) This is both a boon and a bane. The world is overrun with Eyehategod clones, yet Thou could learn from Eyehategod's brute force. Thou are intense - YouTube videos prove that in the live context - but their intensity is more punk than metal. Funck's parched rasp has a range of about two notes, and his bandmates have sounded ramshackle for much of Thou's discography. It's taken them a while to achieve any sort of collective force. (Contrast with Eyehategod's internally connected attack.) My favorite moments in Thou discography's are when the band isn't playing: the string interludes on Summit and the Salome split.
But while Summit is not entirely convincing, it is very, very interesting. The guitars have seemingly given up all attempts at aggression. Instead, they have traded overt heaviness for emotional heaviness. They work through melodies one at a time, with surprisingly subtle interplay between the two guitars, panned left and right for headphone pleasure. Sometimes they support and play off each other; sometimes they converge in stirring unisons. A newfound sense of harmonic sophistication is evident. Suspended chords hang all over the place, and some passages are like Pinback's finesse gone metal. But the production is dry and the performances are raw, so Thou aren't about to head down the lush avenues that Isis took.
Instead, they evoke a tension reminiscent of melodic death metal: guitars unfurling melodies while some guy screams on top. His bandmates are exploring a wider emotional range than ever, but Funck is stuck in his two-note rasp. (Maybe voice teacher Claudia Friedlander could offer him some tips.) His vocals are the one thing holding the band back. That's a shame, as he's such a powerful force otherwise. He's responsible for the band's signature artwork based on woodcuts and appropriated images, and his lyrics smartly blend the personal with the political: "But when I look around at the fiends who would needle away my resolve, who would recreate me in their image, I recognize their insignificance, and so the winds of history disperse the fog of mysticism". I'm not sure what that means, but I'm sure that it demands a delivery other than an incomprehensible rasp.
Still, Thou have come a long way. I admire their business model more than their music, but that might change an EP or three after Summit. The record positions the band as an open system with great possibilities.
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ORDER, VINYL, STREAM, GIVEAWAY
- Order Summit on CD and t-shirt here from Gilead Media. All orders come with a patch and a button.
- Double vinyl is forthcoming from Southern Lord.
- NPR is streaming Summit in full here until its official release date of August 10.
- Gilead Media is graciously giving away one copy of the tour edition CD of Summit. This was a handmade edition of 200 with alternate packaging (see story here) that sold out quickly. This might be your only chance now to score one (other than eBay). Here's how: leave an interview question for Bryan Funck in the comments. Whoever submits the best (i.e., most thoughful, interesting, etc.) one wins. Submit only one question (no multi-part deals). This giveaway will close at midnight PST this Sunday, August 8.
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