Feats of Strength: The Thermals

The Thermals are returning home to Portland this weekend for the inaugural Project Pabst festival, and as always we’re psyched for the opportunity to see one of our hometown favorites* in action once again.  With that in mind, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to briefly discuss one of our favorite albums from the last decade, The Body, the Blood, the Machine.  A furious blast of righteous fury aimed directly at an oppressive political establishment, The Body, the Blood, the Machine stands as one of the few concept albums whose execution matches its ambition.  Its narrative revolves around a couple fleeing the clutches of a fascist, theocratic government, and though it could easily devolve into a mere screed that ultimately bores the listener, the album never fails to consistently engage the listener, both with its incisive lyrics and its ever-propulsive music.

“A Pillar of Salt” illustrates the ability of the band perfectly.  Lyrically, it’s the most straightforward depiction of the actual storyline, detailing exactly how the young couple is escaping the clutches of the authoritarian regime, capturing the tyrannical nature of the regime and also the perilous nature of the family’s quest for freedom.  Musically, it’s the perfect example of what “pop-punk” should aspire to be–catchy melodies but backed by razor-sharp playing that doesn’t lack for any edge.  One of my favorite accomplishments as a music director back when I worked in radio was playing this song and receiving direct feedback from our listeners about how much they loved the song.  It was rare for us to get phone calls from listeners, but for “A Pillar of Salt” we got several calls from listeners who wanted to know who the band was that played this song and requesting that we play it more often.  It was nice having my instincts confirmed as I shepherded the song from the specialty show into a new music showcase and eventually into regular rotation, that a band that didn’t get a big push nationally was actually really good and that listeners actually wanted to hear them.  Hopefully those listeners took the initiative and bought the album as well, because “A Pillar of Salt” was definitely not the only highlight of the album.

“Returning to the Fold” appears right after “Pillar” on the album, and though it veers in a different direction by slowing the tempo a bit, it eventually reveals itself to be another high point and would become a fan-favorite, who enjoy stomping along with its big chorus and singing at the top of their longs brilliant lines like “I can’t believe I got so far with a head so empty.”  Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the songs, I want you to listen to the intros and first verses of each songs carefully, paying attention to the guitar.  You should be able to notice that…the two songs have the exact same chord progression.  Even with the different tempos, it should be obvious now, especially after I’ve pointed it out.

Now, considering the connective thread that runs throughout the album, this clearly isn’t an example of a band repeating the same tired old ideas, but is instead obviously intentional, especially since the two songs appear back-to-back.  And then it becomes clearer that there are deeper connections between the two songs, such as the fact that the first revolves around escaping, while the second talks about “returning to the fold”.  In fact, the fact that the slower song is the one detailing the return mirrors the reaction of what would occur in real life–there would be a frantic attempt at escape, but when caught, the family would trudge back home, in no way eager to come back.  It’s subtle musical and thematic connections such as this which help set The Body, the Blood, the Machine from other concept albums, and help it succeed where so many others failed before.

*Ed. Note: We don’t want to slight any of the other great Portland bands that we love, including Red Fang, who are set to perform at Project Pabst as well.  Just as parents aren’t asked to choose favorites among their children, we don’t want to do the same with our local bands.  We love a lot of them.

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