Years ago, a rambunctious cousin was horsing around inside a solemn house of worship. Gently reminded that his disrespectful antics might one day land him in the Bad Place, his reply for the ages has since entered family lore: “THIS is Hell.”
Like all art, music should speak for itself and usually does. An artist’s backstory neither enhances nor diminishes the concrete sounds emanating from our speakers nor helps them stand the test of time. But reading about the bumpy road Thus Love took to get here – ‘here’ being their accomplished debut release Memorial – that wise cousin’s admonition reflexively comes to mind. Without delving into intrusive specifics, Thus Love withstood loss, transitions, and the deaths of several people close to the band while making this record. Then came the pandemic, which halted touring and knocked countless budding music careers astray.
But a dirty little secret of annus horribilis 2020 was how many writers and other artistic types thrived during lockdowns, forcing otherwise wayward creative personalities to hunker down and get to work. Heavily forested Brattleboro, Vermont, snug against the New Hampshire border, no doubt provided the ideal apocalypse retreat for Thus Love. As vocalist/guitarist Echo Mars puts it, “I obviously would never want to go through a pandemic again, but I’m pretty confident in saying that this album would not be coming out in 2022 if we hadn’t had the forced downtime.”
A first-class introduction it is. Judging by Thus Love’s early demos, they began life as an overly goth-influenced band that has since polished their messy sound to a confident post-punk sheen. Yet another tired crew of early 1980s Church/Chameleons/Bunnymen acolytes, you say? Roll your eyes if you must, but Memorial is much more than that. Whatever their influences, it takes serious talent for a band to write and sound this good their first time out. Mars’ vocals resonate like a subterranean Michael Hutchence on tracks such as “In Tandem”, which also features one of the more unconventional nine-time drumbeats to come around in a long while.
Early INXS is a fine descriptor for the energetic guitar-pop aspect that lifts this music above the bulk of today’s drearier post-punk efforts. Echoey Chameleons-style riffs, a la Reg Smithies, are a staple here, fusing with an aggressive rhythm section on “Crowd” to hit a livelier pitch than most purveyors aspire to; Sophia DiMatteo’s bass gets prominent placement as well. “Inamorato” may be the best example of a straight-out Mark Burgess composition, although that songwriter’s bleak-yet-rewarding aesthetic can be found all over Memorial.
A few unanswered questions also intrigue this listener. Was the DiMatteo-inflected “Family Man” recorded live? The shouted finale and cheering fans at its conclusion would seem to say yes. Based on some of her more nomadic Schrodinger’s Cat progressions (in two places at once), one also wonders whether Ms. Mars had Rush’s antiseptic yet still influential 1984 release Grace Under Pressure on her turntable. It turns out Alex Lifeson’s hallucinatory, solitary-confinement licks on “Distant Early Warning” represented the perfect quarantine guitar solo, even if nobody realized it at the time. Medical issues also come to the forefront on tracks like “Pith and Point”: “One dies for their own sins / I worship the God / Of pre-existing condition.” It’s a tough road indeed.
Despite its hi-res 24/96 format, Memorial avoids the ear-fatiguing overproduction common to so many of its post-punk brethren. This critic’s typical “yes, but” paragraph is also absent because there really isn’t a weak track on this entire record. Where art is concerned, it seems some benefit did emerge from 2020 after all. Highly recommended.