Ten years after their debut, The Thermals are back with a bang with their sixth album Desperate Ground. The three-piece from Portland, Oregon made their name with a string of punky, lo fi albums which made no concessions to commercialism in either their no frills but high thrills music or angry, anti-establishment lyrics that carried you along breathlessly on a tide of adrenaline. Their previous album Personal Life (2010) marked a change to more rounded, radio-friendly songs about personal relationships, but this fireball is a return to the fast-paced, raw intensity of their early years.
Like their third album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, which stuck the knife into American right-wing Christian fundamentalism, it’s a sort of concept album, this time about the psychology of violence. Presented from the viewpoint of a professional killer, presumably a soldier involved in the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it gives us a queasy empathy for the loneliness, paranoia and demented bloodlust of someone who is both brutal and brutalized.
The forceful lyrics are upfront in Hutch Harris’s in-yer-face vocal delivery, backed by his simple but effective power chords and the driving rhythms of Kathy Foster (bass) and Westin Glass (drums). Played at breakneck speed this sinewy album burns up less than 30 minutes, with 10 bullet-like explosions of two/three-minute punk songs that carry on ricocheting in your mind after the last track has died away.
The album gets off to a storming start with the title track and lead single setting the violent tone of a man on a lethal mission: “I was born to kill / I was made to slay / Unafraid to spill blood on the land / When you command I will.” The compelling new single The Sunset evokes a need to be under cover of the night where his dark soul can be hidden from view: “My shadows are close / Where I need them to be.”
The Sword By My Side embodies the idea that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, where the protagonist has only ‘a hole in the ground’ to look forward to, while in You Will Find Me he is ‘scared to sleep’, pursued by guilt and his own nemesis and in Faces Stay With Me he is haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed: “I remember their faces / As I set them free.”
Where I Stand sees the soldier prepared to meet his inevitable fate, fighting to the finish: “No use to run, soon they will come / No use to hide, we are there already tonight / Soon they will come, I will defend / Here it will end!” But in the final track Our Love Survives there is an unexpected note of twisted transfiguration, where his actions are portrayed as a form of destructive love: “No matter if we die / We will live eternally.”
Though undeniably powerful, Desperate Ground does become a bit monotonous due to the lack of variety of mood and change in pace – as an unrelenting rant it needs to make an impact quickly, so its brevity is necessary. At the sudden end, we feel like The Thermals have taken us on a disturbing but strangely exhilarating ride through a dark tunnel – or perhaps shot out through the barrel of a gun.