At the end of his review of the Thermals’ first three albums (recently re-released on vinyl), our own Scott Elingburg wondered where the group were now musically and thematically. Well Scott, I can happily report that they remain as potent, powerful and essential as ever. Newly signed to Saddle Creek, produced by John Agnello in Hoboken, and recorded just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Desperate Ground will be immediately recognized as amongst the best work the band have done.
It takes an immense skill as a songwriter/band to produce consistently great three minute songs (the longest track on Desperate Ground is 3:14) that hold the attention of the listener without sounding repetitious. For me, the best band ever at doing this were the Buzzcocks, and the Thermals, while not quite in that sphere of brilliance, certainly deserve to be mentioned in such company. This is no one-trick pony. Over a series of five (now six) albums, the Thermals have harnessed the spirit of punk and delivered a body of work full of furious polemic songs. There is an unrelenting energy about the band; an energy in their playing and approach to music, but also an energy in their unrelenting assault on the continued injustices of the world, whether that is politics, war, the environment or personal issues of love, life and death.
It’s almost comforting to hear Hutch Harris’ sharp intake of breath before he launches into “Born to Kill”. He delivers the opening line “I was born to kill” beautifully. It’s the slight pause between the words “born” and “to kill” that sums up Harris and The Thermals, inflecting the song with a menace that leaves you fearing for your safety, before he delivers the next line, “I was made to slay / Unafraid to spill / Blood on the land / When you command I will”, but it’s all backed up by the ridiculously danceable, pogo-inducing music. It is simply great punk rock music. It’s an iron fist in a chainmail glove.
“You Will Be Free” provides a voice to the parents of the protagonist of “Born to Kill”. Here, the parents lay out why their child is so fucked up as it becomes clear that a breakdown in the family has led our main character to be taken away from his parents. And so it dawns on me that Desperate Grounds is a concept album, telling the tale of the personal demons afflicting the central character as on “The Sunset” when “And now I feel free to kill / But I know, my shadows may follow me still / And they probably always will” is sung.
The unnamed character throughout the songs brings to mind Brett Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman, one of the great literally characters of the 20th Century. There is a real sense of tension building on Desperate Grounds that is both unsettling and yet gripping. As we move through the album, it’s not clear whether this is indeed a Patrick Bateman type serial killer or a war veteran torn apart by the horrors of war. “Faces Stay With Me” and its opening line, “The friends I’ve lost / I can clearly see / The men I’ve ended / Not forgotten to me / I remember their faces / As I set them free” only adds to the intrigue and ambiguity. Who is this character? What is his life? What is his past? What is his future?
There is a resolution of sorts on the last track “Our Love Survives” although I’m not going to spoil the denouement for you, suffice to say that this 26-minute concept album is confirmation of the power and enduring brilliance of the Thermals as they show no signs of slowing up—no signs of any erosion in their quality—and for that, we should be thankful.
- Multiple songs Artist site