Funny things, power chords. Drop one in at just the right time like, say, Coldplay do to such great effect then you can turn a pretty run-of-the-mill indie stomper into something heroic, providing drunken fans with the perfect opportunity to raise their half-full pint glasses to the heavens and scream along tunelessly in unison. Use them too much like Status Quo and you become staid, hackneyed dad-rockers, destined for a shelf life living on All-Time Classic Soft Rock Anthems albums.
But what if you use them… all the time? Hutch Harris, lead singer of Portland’s The Thermals the fire and brimstone punk rockers with an axe to grind with the Bush administration is attempting to find out the answer to this particular musical puzzle in his own sweaty way. As his fingers close around the around the third and the fifth fret for the umpteenth time this evening, he grins: “Hello London! Fuck, it’s hot in here!”
And hot it really is. Inside the Water Rats in Kings Cross, the equivalent of an oversized dining room attached to a pub, perspiration drips off the ceilings, evaporating from the mass of bouncy devotees and interested bystanders crammed into the tiny theatre. The main attraction signed to hipper-than-thou label Sub Pop – are playing at a blistering speed, often without pausing, between two-minute blasts of surprisingly tuneful power-punk considering, as we’ve already noted, they only know about three chords.
But, hell, when they do it this well who cares? Tearing straight into a salvo of songs from their critically-lauded third album, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, Harris, flanked by coily haired bassist Kathy Foster and tribal rhythm section Lorin Coleman make up for any limitations in their playing style by wringing punchy, tuneful morsels out of every three-chord progression.
Opener Here’s Your Future, one of the many songs off The Body…, a concept record dealing with the aftermath of a Christian fundamentalist nuclear war (yep, it’s a laugh-a-minute), is a stormer, reducing the front three rows of the audience to apoplexy. Similarly, newbies St Rosa and The Swallows, An Ear For Baby and the earth-shuddering I Might Need You To Kill are delivered at ear-splitting volume and intensity, Hutch’s voice straining at the top of his level without even the opportunity to swig from a bottle of water between songs.
Yes, to the uninitiated, many of their songs may sound pretty similar. Their older work, mostly drawn from their second record, Fuckin’ A, is unashamedly punk a raw, blistering combination of pure adolescent rage and rather primitive musicianship that often makes it difficult to differentiate between songs. However it’s still obvious that the band love playing these tracks Hutch hurls himself around the stage to almost life threatening extremes to oldie-but goodie It’s Trivia and on the truly anthemic No Culture Icons (“no self reference/ no getting psyched on/ no culture icons”) you can see the genesis of the band’s now-poppier sound.
In the end, it is left to two of their most accessible tracks to round off the concert single A Pillar of Salt and the so-pop-it’s-almost Third Eye Blind Returning to the Fold are truly great singles, however, with the lack of a second guitarist to fill in on those tricky solos, here they fall a little flat you can see the band’s imagination and sound straining at the leash to mature and evolve, but the DIY tools they’re working with hold them back. With any justice, The Thermals should be as big as those other angry concept album making punks, Green Day. They might just need to learn a few more chords first.