The Thermals – Desperate Ground: album review
Portland, Oregon’s The Thermals are loved by skaters, beatniks, punks, disaffected emo kids and garage rock fans, and have been spreading their searing punk rock political commentary across 6 albums since 2002, and, well, you know what they say, “if it ain’t broke…”
For their latest effort, Desperate Ground, The Thermals joined forces with veteran producer John Agnello (whose discography credits include Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Redd Kross, Turbonegro, and The Ponys).
At Agnello’s wise insistence, they completed the album 4 days ahead of schedule, and evacuated their Hoboken, New Jersey studio just hours before hurricane Sandy hit. So the album’s themes of post apocalyptic survival and enduring love certainly uncannily mirror the reality of the band’s experiences at the time.
For those unfamiliar with The Thermals, imagine the early energetic stompers of Superchunk or the anthemic wail of Titus Andronicus, but with a much more progressive agenda.
Desperate Ground opens with a ripping call to arms in the form of “Born To Kill”, a raging anti-war polemic which is accompanied by a suitably visceral video, perfectly setting the scene for the 9 brisk and bracing songs to follow.
The album tells a story full of unsettling contradictions, of being a killer and a victim, of being a free-thinking revolutionist as well as a programmed machine &emdash; and these are dilemmas not only suffered by soldiers in wartime, but to a certain extent, things we as ordinary people wrestle with in our everyday lives, too. In essence, it’s the constant struggle for control over our own futures and destinies, which all too often we feel helpless to influence or improve.
Musically as well, Desperate Ground is a tightrope walk between resentment, rebellion and outrage…courage, optimism and love. Because although the lyrics are heavy and often bleak, The Thermals seem to juggle this with an upliftingly defiant determination, as evidenced on 2nd track “You Will Be Free”, where Hutch Harris bellows in his distinctive angsty warble, “We are alive, we will fight to the end/you will be free/you will be free soon again”.
This is a band that sees punk rock not just as goofy misbehaving caricature, but an important tool to vocalise against and challenge the systems in place.
This doesn’t mean you have to be motivated for social change to enjoy Desperate Ground though, as The Thermals deftly weave basic yet effectively melodious punk chords through 10 solid (and surprisingly catchy) compositions which never overstay their welcome and rarely stray beyond the 3 minute mark. And while Harris’ vocal may be an acquired taste to some, it injects a bright urgency against The Thermals’ signature fuzz-crunch assault of guitars and steady, no-frills percussion patterns, stopping the songs from ever becoming dull or too sludgy.
Closer “Our Love Survives” reinforces the positive fervour and fierceness of the record, with Harris becoming a fiery punk rock orator simultaneously tapping into both our anger and hope, as he trills with quavering passion and power, “Our love survives/it will never die/it will outlive the earth, the sun, and the sky”.
Desperate Ground is a bold album of fearlessness, tenacity, and most importantly, an impressively heavy set of iron fucking BALLS, and sometimes we need that in music to startle us out of our jaded complacency as beautifully flawed human machines.
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LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3
7" / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD