The Thermals - The Body, The Blood, The Machine
Record Label: Sub Pop
Release Date: August 22, 2006
When an album feels like it’s kicking your ass, you’re in for a good time. When it touches you emotionally or makes you sing along at the top of your lungs, you will be sure to remember it for a long time. When it makes you question the world around you, then it’s been impactful. Lots of classic records are able to touch one, maybe two, of these facets. The Thermals’ 2006 release, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, encapsulates them all and does so in flying colors.
The Body, The Blood, The Machine “tells the story of a young couple who must flee a United States governed by fascist faux-Christians.” I quote the band there, because really, it couldn’t be put better. Though the “story” may not be a coherent set of events, the album still retains the feel of connectivity, which is all that really matters.
So much of the album’s success comes from lead singer/guitarist Harris’s lyrical work. He is, for my money, the best simple lyricist in music today. By this I mean that he tackles his ideas not only with clever precision, but also with a sense of knowledgeable punk’s brevity. His observations about God and His followers are emphatically straight-shooting and to the point, but touch on some really interesting and complex ideas. Yet even in the darkest moments, there’s always a faint tinge of hope that propels the ideas forward.
From the opening church organ hum on “Here’s to Your Future,” the listener is thrown headfirst into the dystopian state. As a slick guitar riff and vocals join in the mix, things begin to build. When the drums and bass come in, everything spirals out of control into sonic bliss.
Without skipping a beat, “I Might Need You to Kill” comes. It’s a track that showcases the thing that really sets The Thermals apart from their peers: the fantastic rhythm of their riffs. It’s amazing how fantastic a simple chord progression can sound with an off-kilter strumming pattern. The followup, “An Ear for Baby,” has Harris singing with such a delicious snarl and grin in his voice that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the music. The song also highlights the band’s love of basic, but effective, melodic guitar solos and feedback.
As the The Body, The Blood, The Machine continues the rush on, it hits it’s highpoint with it’s two singles, “A Pillar of Salt” and “Returning to the Fold.” “We were born to sin. WE WERE BORN TO SIN!” That’s the rallying cry of “A Pillar of Salt,” which rings out as if The Thermals are preaching to the choir of the disenchanted. As the barrage of punk downstrokes lay the groundwork for the track, a snappy keyboard line adds a coat of poppy sugar to jazz it up just a hair. It’s a full speed attack with bounce that just makes me want to throw my hands in the air in search of some kind of sonic salvation.
It is hard to point to what exactly makes “Returning to the Fold” so fantastic; it’s probably just the sum of the parts. Harris absolutely wails on the verses here, the guitar/bass lines rhythm pattern is wonderful, and the drums crash throughout. On top of that, the lyrics are terrifically tongue in cheek with lines like, “I forgot I needed God like (a) Big Brother.”
After this burst of fury, the album’s slow jam “Test Pattern” comes along. It’s the only song not overtly about religion on the record, instead dwelling on failed relationships. Loneliness seeps through the track which is sharp due to the brilliantly simple drumming (which exists throughout The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but is front and center here) that drives forward the heartbreak. The rhythmic guitar comes back in full forces with the sliding line of “St. Rosa and the Swallows.” As the most uplifting song in the bunch, it is placed perfectly to keep the pep up between the two slowest songs.
“Back To the Sea” tells the tale of denying Noah and his ark and instead crawling back to the sea; it's the type of track where most bands with a punk background would grossly misfire, but in the hands of The Thermals, it is pulled off. It truly feels like the subject is defiantly trudging away from the ark as the blustering wind and pouring rain beats down on it. Before the last hurrah comes “Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing,” a cut that might be the most fun song blasting obsessive greed ever written. It has all the energy of the last lap of an auto race, with cars barreling by one another at mach speeds to hopefully make it home first, only to have them crash in a violent blaze. Once the dust is settled, it’s hard to tell who really crossed the line first and won, but the crowd is on their feet cheering.
The final track, “I Hold the Sound,” is basically used as a cinematic tool as much as a pure song, and while that may sound like a negative, it excels in this role. The lyrics seem to be hopeful in the face of desolation. “It’s safe now, we can move. The world is over, the world is over…” As the album finishes in a mush of crashing distortion the listener is left conflicted and unsure of what has become of the world and characters The Thermals created. But that’s the point. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is an album about questioning. It’s not merely about second guessing religion and authority, but also about examining the day to day complacency so many of us allow to consume our lives. There is not one thing complacent about The Body, The Blood, The Machine, and that’s what makes it so tremendous.