In between collaborations with Emma Ruth Rundle, Nirvana covers, and Video Game soundtracks, Baton Rouge staples Thou have maintained a consistent dosage of devastating sludge doom throughout their prolific career. It just goes to show that if a band has their sound dialed in, there’s still room to explore many chambers within their catacombs of slow-motion riff-worship and glass-gargling snarls.

Perhaps because vocalist Bryan Funck doesn’t have the most intelligible style, the undercurrent of radical politics and left-field philosophy might not reveal itself on first listen. But really, that seems to be the inspiration behind Thou‘s latest album Umbilical. With a raw, more hardcore-oriented sound compared to their 2016 full-length Magus, Thou traverses the dark underbelly of human consciousness guided by primal rage.

There’s something mildly humorous about song titles like “Narcissist’s Prayer” and “I Feel Nothing When You Cry”, but maybe that’s just to cope with the blunt cynicism. Especially as an opener, the former cut sets a crushingly nihilistic aura with a deliciously filthy riff plodding away as Funck ends his theosophic diatribe with “It’s time to die… So die.” The latter track’s relative speed will likely surprise many long-time fans. Don’t worry, Thou hasn’t gone metallic hardcore, but it’s undeniably interesting to contextualize the propulsive rage of this cut with a moshy Zao song like “Five Year Winter” (which Thou has covered before). Call it sludge-core if you want, but it’s clear that Thou wanted to subvert their usual penchant for lumbering misery this time around.

Also worth mentioning is the fact only four of these songs break the five-minute mark—surprising for an album in this genre. This immediacy works swimmingly for the mid-tempo stomp of “Emotional Terrorist”, allowing it to channel Thou‘s hardcore sensibilities while maintaining respect for groovy riffs. Thou has always come off as a punk band playing doom, so hearing them up the frenetic violence in the cut “Unbidden Guest” is not only a refreshing change of pace but also very natural. The massiveness of the bassist Mitch Wells‘ low end and the filthiness of the guitarists Matthew Thudium and KC Stafford‘s tone remain intact, but Tyler Coburn‘s drumming drives the band into a much more throttling headspace. Even during passages of droning, repetitious feedback, his work behind the kit provides urgency where there would otherwise be the musical equivalent of quicksand.

The transition from brooding to violence also helps a cut like “Lonely Vigil” transcend the bounds of its sludge doom structure. With only three minutes to spare, it goes straight for the jugular with walls of thick distortion and more frequent tempo changes. It just goes to show how just a bit of haste can bring a song from bong hits to pit beef in no time. It certainly takes a special vibe for “The Promise” to balance Emily McWilliam‘s soothing singing voice in what’s essentially a two-stepping hardcore song complete with an ass-beating breakdown. Playing this to hardcore kids will result in many a spin kick thrown. And yet, Thou are still playing sludge. The riffs are still as smokey and dark as expected, and Funck‘s screams remain as steadfastly spooky as ever.

Umbilical‘s added energy effectively retains the enveloping production of Magus, keeping cuts like “House of Ideas” as suffocating as they are mean. As one of the album’s longer tracks, the immaculate soundscapes do a lot of fill out the space during its extended interlude of ambient machinations and hypnotic chugs. There’s even a tasteful guitar solo at the “Clymax”, complete with backup vocals from one Michael Berdan of Industrial ragers Uniform. Like sludgecore staples like Admiral Angry or Black Sheep Wall, even a more overtly doomy number like “I Return as Chained and Bound to You” carries a pervasive momentum. Whether it’s the drummer staying a little ahead of himself, or the guitarists adding more licks and fewer drones, this isn’t doom for zoning out. The ambient elements serve for emotion, not filler.

Ironically, the song that gets the most hypnotic vibes on the album ends up being “Panic Stricken, I Flee”, more in the way of a band like Conan. The unrelenting double-time groove gives the chugging riffage a bouncy feel, backing bystanders into a corner where all they can do is let the sonic detonations wash over them. The contrast of Funck‘s more legato-style screams and even Melvins-ish guitar noodling rounds things out nicely. In fact, Umbilical does a good job of avoiding Thou‘s usual doom style, the closing track “Siege Perilous” actually stands out for being the most clear-cut example of Thou propper. Noisy, grating, and hateful, the album ends with a (un)healthy dose of brown-note oblivion.

The primal anger at the center of Umbilical remains palpable, making it one of Thou‘s most memorable efforts to date. Long-time fans will still find the molasses-caked riffs and beefy tones that they’d expect after the band’s almost two-decade career, but that tinge of hardcore energy does a lot to revitalize their well-established sound. It actually makes this a good starting point for anyone wanting to start listening to Thou without wading through 50-plus releases. It gets straight to the point, provides plenty of bang for its buck, and doesn’t let its increased energy get in the way of pure riff worship.

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