Review: Earth Ground by Thaw
I know we’re pretty late to the reviewing game on this one, but I was under the impression that everyone was already dutifully sacrificing goats to Thaw’s new album, Earth Ground. When the October 10th release date came and went without much to-do, I figured I would eventually see more talk of ritual self-immolation while listening, invoking some sort of necrowitch while gluing the CD booklet to your frostbitten body with hot wax, or shrieking at a blood red moon with the skull of a slain enemy in your hand. You know, the usual things you do when a good black metal album is released. But alas, two months have withered and died since Earth Ground was released, and no fell voice, war chant, or grim howl of approval has reached mine ears. Guys, let’s check this out.
Thaw’s sound doesn’t shatter any boundaries, but it does make you think for a second. Frequent doses of thick dissonance make up a general palette, touches of heavy, plodding sludge dot the landscape, and a spacey, reflective mood permeates certain sections. There are occasional glimpses of vocal variation, but overall the listener is accosted by a raspy, layered, midrange shriek that is unmistakably evil and unmistakably black metal. Calling them post-something would probably work best, but that label can often ask more questions than it answers. What’s important here isn’t a finding a sub-sub-genre to shove them in, but rather understanding that this album has a lot to offer. Thaw’s dark and brooding take on modern black metal should find a place on the shelf of the trve and the casval alike.
While there is no specific, unifying concept to Earth Ground, the song titles map out a general arc depicting the passage of three dismal days. Oddly enough, the pacing of songs falls more in a first half/second half division, with the album’s opening of “First Day” through “No Light” punishes with bristling, blasting aggressiveness and the midpoint track “Second Day” marks a generally slower, ponderously heavy approach through the final track “Last Day.” This, of course, is not a strict format, but a straight-through listening of the album will provide an appreciable progression, whether it was intentional or not.
Regardless of where you are in the album, Thaw achieves a fantastic sense of bleak persistence without wearing on. In black metal, that effect is often realized through an onslaught of tremolo chords and blast beats. While we get plenty of that, Earth Ground’s primary strategy is through the crafting of gloomy riffs and chord progressions that repeat just enough to focus the listener’s gaze inward. Take, for example, the excellent pacing of the 0:52-2:13 section of “Afterkingdom:” we start with a heavy rhythmic idea that repeats a few times as a verse adds in, then it slides right into a churning, driving section utilizing more dissonance that evolves a bit before bulldozing right back into the opening blast. Each section establishes itself firmly, giving strong anchor points that make the next sections feel intentional and excellently timed. Similarly, “Last Day” is an absolute punisher of a song, with electronic flavorings to shake things up and massive, chordal sledgehammer sections that all display the same sense of dark, dreadful insistence over a masterful sense of pacing. That section at 3:39, man. It will destroy you.
Another quality that is displayed in the aforementioned sections and throughout the album is a feel of cohesion. Within a given song, the riffs that are pieced together have a distinct connection without sounding overly similar or repetitive. Whether it’s a distinct chord, tonal color, or a rhythmic idea, there is a thread that runs through each song, as if each tune is a monstrous spawn of a single, fascinating, shape-shifting riff. “Soil” is an excellent example of this, where every new section of the seven minute track sounds like a perfect outgrowth of the part before, until we find ourselves having gradually and creatively moved quite far from the beginning idea. While I love music with contrasting sections and highly variable structure, I can really appreciate the compositional intent that comes to mind here: an introspective, post-black metal approach to riffs informed by a borrowed, off-brand idea of minimalism.
In an interview, Thaw stated that their intention with this album was all about sound. The title Earth Ground comes from a statement on the back of guitar amps that says “this unit must be earth grounded.” A fitting title, as the sound of the album has a full, thick tone to each instrument, calling to mind amps in a room rather a direct line through a computer. The guitars are heavy with bold, mid-range frequencies and the bass sits well in the mix at a low, gristly snarl. Combine those elements with a full-bodied snare drum and a more natural sounding kick, and the “Earth” portion of the title is well purposed. Audiophiles can debate the nerdy details in the comments, but to my ears, their thick, imposing sound fits the dark and brooding nature of the music, and the raspy, positively mean vocals are at a stellar spot in the mix.
While Thaw isn’t breaking any boundaries with their sophomore release, they are offering a sincere statement that they mean business. This is an album that should be taken seriously, and a band that should be followed. With an upcoming spring tour as support for Behemoth and Bölzer, Thaw is clearly poised to be a contending force in the underground black metal world. Not to mention the impressive feat of releasing a second album just a year after their debut, along with a split with Echos of Yul that came out this year. The point is, these guys are busy, so pay attention.