Love them or hate them, Thou have been one of the most recognizable faces in underground metal since the band’s inception in the early aughts. Whether you’re a fan of their “punk by way of doom metal” musical stylings, the starkly confrontational anarchist lyrical themes the band employs, or the irreverent humor they employ across social media platforms (and occasionally printed on merchandise), there is no other band that carries themselves the way Thou has, and their commitment has earned them devotees by the score. We all know what happens when well established and well loved acts have a pivoting moment, though. This moment comes for Thou on their newest full-length Magus, which may surprise long time fans of the band, but for those with open minds, shows Thou at their most powerful and affecting.
The road to the release of Magus has been paved with a series of shorter albums that have seen Thou stretch themselves out fully into territories their music has only touched on previously. The House Primordial, covered previously by yours truly, was the first brick in this groundwork, and took the sparse, droning soundscapes Thou often injected into their music in short doses and ran completely away with it, conjuring thirty minutes of droning doom that evoked a cold, barren desert at night, replete with biting wind and the jagged teeth of predators. The end of May brought us the second EP of this trilogy, Inconsolable, where we saw the band strip themselves completely bare, eschewing harsh vocals and distortion for a clean, acoustic sound that taps into the morose and melodic aspects of their music. The final EP, Rhea Sylvia, crystallized Thou’s unashamed love of grunge and 90s downer rock in the form of loping, hypnotic dirges, and even features a Crowbar cover in case you didn’t know what this band was about already.
And so, after three releases that break Thou down alchemy-like into their base sonic components, what was refined from all this material is Magus, the band’s first full-length album since 2013’s Heathen. After such a long time between albums, it was anyone’s guess what this hiatus would yield, but even still, Magus is a much different beast than the Thou I have known. The album occupies an uncanny valley in the band’s discography, recognizable as their own, but with an otherworldly sheen that twists their image into something new. The down-tuned, titanically heavy sludge metal that is the meat and potatoes of Thou is still there, but instead of in-your-face attitude, Magus sees the band take a much more nuanced approach to their craft. While to my ears Magus has the most in common with the Rhea Sylvia EP, there are elements of all the new angles the band employs present here. Much of the songs on Magus are accented melodically by Inconsolable’s shimmering, arpeggiated chords that, when returned to a plugged-in context, cast a faded light on the heavy musical backbone, and the droning guitar accompaniment (as well as the ambient interlude track “My Brother Caliban”) recalls a cleaned-up version of the material present on The House Primordial. In many ways, Magus reminds me of another of my favorite releases from 2018, Deafheaven’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Both bands ventured wildly outside of the sound that they were known for (a la 2015’s New Bermuda) and have now released albums that circle back to the core of their artistic vision while keeping hold of the best parts of that experimentation. In Thou’s case, Magus shows the band completely reinvigorated and full of a dark new life.
For a band that has thrived on being hard to pin down since their earliest days, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Magus is “Thou 2.0,” but it certainly shows the band wearing a different mask than ever before. For me, this is the best I have ever heard them sound, which is no small statement considering the breadth of their discography. Fully anticipate this to be my album of the year.