Punk-rooted, Portland-bred indie rockers The Thermals have spent the past decade forging their brand by forcing critics to scour their thesauruses in search of interesting ways of saying "loud, fast and catchy." Their output is so rigorously consistent that even intermediate fans could have trouble pinpointing any one song's point of origin within their six-album discography. Their latest, this year's Desperate Ground, stays the course as the band shows no signs of faltering from their formula any time soon.
In 2006, The Thermals' critical acclaim spiked with The Body, the Blood, the Machine — a loosely conceptual, tightly themed and invigorating aural bundle of fury describing the horrors of a near-future fascist theocracy, and probably the most bone-chilling story one could have laid onto young Bush Era indie-rock fans. It also proved a more focused vehicle for singer-guitarist Hutch Harris' potent lyricism. In addition to featuring predictably pleasing, blistering pop tunes, every album since has adhered closely to a singular subject, exploring themes like religion, death and relationships from every angle and through the eyes of characters contained within its songs.
"For me, I need it to be that way," says Harris of his approach. "I want all the songs to be connected or have a common thread running through them. I don't like a record that feels like a random collection of songs that happened to be written at the same time. I'd much rather have a theme so the record is about something — besides just like, 'Here's a bunch of songs.' "
Released mid-April via Saddle Creek Records, Desperate Ground continues that approach. This time, The Thermals' singably trenchant songs are about war — or more specifically, the killing involved therein. While that may seem perfectly topical — considering the fact that killing, murder and warring nations never aren't topical — this record decidedly refuses to confront, condemn, condone or comment on the war that inspired it.
"Overall, it's fiction — like a lot of our records," says Harris. "I'm not singing from real-life experiences. At the same time, I'm not going to sing about what I read in the newspapers about war. The theme evolved to just be about how humans are violent, inherently, for as long as we've been around."
The idea of listening to nine songs about the dark side of humanity (and one about love) would probably stink of bummerwaves to someone who hasn't yet heard a Thermals record. The first two seconds of opening track "Born to Kill" are like a pocket of metadata that prefaces the entire album. Harris shouts "I was born to kill!" over an instantaneous explosion of blown-out guitars, bass and drums channeled through a contagious hook — and that is essentially what follows for the next 30 minutes.
Though The Thermals were born out of the defunct folk duo Hutch and Kathy (which also featured Thermals bassist Kathy Foster), and Harris has touched on those softer roots via side project Forbidden Friends, Harris rejected any suggestions the band would ever soften, slow or deviate from its best and only known strengths. While their last record, Personal Life, hinted at a bit of sonic exploration, fragmenting their sound into slower, more intricate arrangements, Harris assures the Scene that it was only a test.
"It was a nice detour to take, but we didn't want that to be, like, the new path for the band," says Harris. "We definitely felt like after that last record, we definitely needed to get back to like, loud and fast. ... As far as The Thermals go, it definitely has to stay a punk band a or a rock band."