Reviews

The Thermals thrive on 'Desperate Ground': /music

Author: Ryan White
04/13/2013 | The Oregonian | www.oregonlive.com | Album Review
Maybe it's a soldier. Maybe it's not a soldier. "Maybe it's rogue soldier," Thermals singer and guitarist Hutch Harris says.

"Maybe it's all in his head," drummer Westin Glass says of the nameless character who dominates the band's new record.

Maybe it's a good idea to make sure the doors and windows are locked.

"Desperate Ground," the sixth Thermals album, and the Portland act's first for Saddle Creek Records, will be released Tuesday. It is a furious, maniacal 10-song, 26-minute descent into an isolated, murderous rage.

"You go to the scariest place possible, because it's the most entertaining," Harris says.

It's also not too far from there to the news, which has been how the Thermals' career, now moving into its second decade, has been framed.

Formed in 2002 by Harris and bassist Kathy Foster, the Thermals are a post-9/11 band, a band that has grown up with foreign wars, culture wars, political enmity, economic turmoil and reality television.

"It's crazy to be in this generation," Harris says. And even if that's probably true for every generation, this one's ours, and they've turned the tumult into anthemic bursts of punk and pop.

The band's debut, "More Parts per Million," was released in 2003. The follow-up, with a title that can't be printed here, came out the next year. Their breakthrough, 2006's "The Body, The Blood, The Machine," took on religious extremism at home, telling the story of a couple fleeing "a fascist faux-Christian U.S.A.," as the biography tells it.

"Now We Can See," released in 2009, was about death. Their last record, 2010's "Personal Life," was about monogamy. That same bio jokes about it being the band's most terrifying topic to date.

At least until October, when they flew to Hoboken, N.J., and moved into the studio to record "Desperate Ground." There was a grocery store across the street, and they could order dinner in, so for two weeks they barely left the studio.

John Agnello, who has worked with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and on recent records by Phosphorescent and Kurt Vile, produced the record and would hang out until late at night.

They blocked out the world and made, in Foster's words, an action movie of a record, one that focuses on a single character, whoever he is.

"Unafraid to spill blood on the land, when you command, I will," Harris sings on "Born to Kill," and it's entirely possible "you" is just another voice in a deranged head.

On "The Sunset" he says "I am never alone. My shadows are close where I need them to be."

He dreams of worsening wars, and imagines a sword that will allow him to be the last thing his enemies see, one that can cut a hole in the sky. He loses the sun, loses the light. He is afraid to go to sleep, trapped.

"You will find me scared and alone, bleeding and torn, needing you so, barely alive, battered and bruised, waiting for you," Harris shouts, more desperate with each passing word.

As the story was being put to tape, Superstorm Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast. Workers at the studio -- Water Music, coincidentally -- began to batten down. As they were down to the final songs, Foster says, "it was freezing cold and reeked of gasoline."

The last song they mixed, "The Howl of the Winds," sounds like it was played into the teeth of a storm.



They finally evacuated the studio, taking shelter with Agnello and his family, blasting the finished product in his kitchen until the power went out.

A few days later, they found themselves surrounded by the kind of debris that's all over "Desperate Ground."

"Our Love Survives" closes the record, and Harris says it was the last song they wrote. At 3 minutes and 9 seconds it's long (for the Thermals), and it's also the only song that puts plural pronouns to work.

"Our love survives," Harris sings. "We'll never die. We'll outlive the Earth, the sun, and the sky. Our love destroys anything in our way."

It could be read as something of a mission statement, a declaration that 11 years in, the Thermals aren't softening, or turning down, or tuning out. It could be read that way. Harris, however, says our main character found a friend, like in, say, Bonnie and Clyde.

"It's pulpy, bloody entertainment," he says. "And we're very proud of that."


Releases

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Desperate Ground

Desperate Ground

LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3


Now We Can See

Now We Can See

LP / CD