Review: The Thermals' Desperate Ground

The adrenaline-fueled pop trio’s sixth album digs deep into the heart of aggression.

By John Chandler March 15, 2013

On their 2006 recordThe Body, The Blood, The Machine, the Thermals solidified their furious template: prod, challenge, and polemicize. Whether the target is organized religion, right-wing politicians, or our own bewildering complacency, singer, guitarist, and songwriter Hutch Harris is up in arms and practically frothing at the mouth throughout. Three albums and seven years later, Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and drummer Westin Glass are sounding a new call to arms. On Desperate Ground, the band’s sixth album (and first on the Saddle Creek label), the Thermals are digging even deeper, trying to source the root cause of aggression itself. But how do you solve a problem like aggression?

“Born to Kill” is the opening salvo in a collection of 10 short, sharp songs about war and the commitment to engage in violence against an enemy. As usual, Harris is spilling over with righteous rage, this time playing the part of a zealot psyching himself up for a mission, a fully indoctrinated warrior ready to slaughter on command. In “You Will Be Free,” he makes an attempt to justify (to himself?) his fervor by citing vague historical precedent, a time when things were better (probably): “Before you existed / Before you were born / Before we were taken / Before we were torn / We were at peace / For all we knew.” Harris’s vocals form the ongoing internal monologue of one man attempting to silence all doubt about his desperate course of action, while Foster and Glass provide the crash and boom. Naturally, all the positive thinking and rationalization comes crashing down around the protagonist once the battle is struck.  

“Till the day in the dirt I lie / Till my ashes scatter in the sea / I will not be denied my destiny.”—“Born to Kill”

Though these tightly wound tunes crackle like proper battlefield anthems, in later songs like “Faces Stay With Me” and “The Howl of the Winds,” we become aware of a definite arc in which the protagonist’s enthusiasm wanes, tempered by sobering reality and possibly the first stirrings of a conscience. It’s a fascinating ride from youthful patriotic pride to the discovery of a cause that’s actually worth fighting for on the final song, “Our Love Survives”: “Our love survives / It will never die / It will outlive the earth, the sun, and the sky / Our love destroys anything in our way.” 

All this high-minded lyrical speculation shouldn’t cause fans of the Thermals’ trademark adrenaline-fueled pop a moment’s worry, though, because Desperate Ground is action first, reflection later—a full-tilt field trip to the front lines of a mind at war with itself. A most desperate place, indeed.

The Thermals play a record-release show at Branx on April 20 at 8. 

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