Style: Sludge Metal
Release Date: 30 Oct 2020
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Even though they've only released five albums under their own name since their founding in 2005, the Baton Rouge sludge metal outfit known as Thou are actually rather prolific. They just release a lot of other stuff: split releases, EPs and, increasingly, collaborations. Thus far, all their collaborations have been with fellow American sludge metal band, the Body, but this one is quite the departure.
ERR isn't another sludge metal band, but an alternative singer/songwriter by the name of Emma Ruth Rundle, apparently best known for her folky post-rock output, not only solo but also with Marriages, the Nocturnes and Red Sparowes. She's also released darkwave and ambient guitar projects, so clearly she's versatile. That's promising when faced with a collaborative project with Thou.
Apparently, they're fans of each other and, when working together was suggested, they leapt at it. The result is certainly interesting, Rundle's clean and haunting voice providing a welcome contrast to the sheer weight of what Thou play. They are a very heavy band indeed, mixing the downtuned heaviness of sludge with the bleakness of black metal, the latter present mostly in the particularly harsh vocals of Bryan Funck. At least I think it's him, as he's credited on vocals alone while KC Stafford plays guitar too. Frankly, whoever it is, I like Thou's music a lot more than I like those vocals, which seem intrusive here.
A song like Ancestral Recall is sublime with Rundle lilting at the sky while Thou drag her back down to the earth, if not into it. It loses that dynamic entirely when Funck joins in. The same holds true on the majority of other tracks, though to a lesser degree on Magickal Cost, as the wilder rhythms keep that interesting even with a harsh voice, just not as interesting as with only Rundle. This album runs 36m and, even by the halfway point, I was convinced that this would be a much better album were Rundle the only voice heard.
Much of that is because I found Funck so annoying, but some of it is because Thou continually mix up the textures they set Rundle's voice against. That dynamic works on the heavy, dense sound of Out of Existence, but also on the sparser Magickal Cost and Into Being. Thou downtune so far that even the guitars sound like basses, except maybe during the solos on Into Being, and what sounds like an array of basses make a slow song like that one achingly heavy. Rundle is a perfect counter to whatever Thou do, orders of magnitude lighter than them but never without weight of her own. Funck fits one style only and that's limiting.
The albums wraps with a nine minute song called The Valley, which is a tearful dirge when it's entirely instrumental, its tentative guitar merging with what sounds like a violin and a distant choral effect. This is so sparse a song that Tyler Coburn's drumkit often feels like a single handheld drum, beating the toll of a life lost. This is Thou meeting Rundle on her own post-rock ground but still making it all dark. To my mind, this is easily the album's highlight, the most evocative piece of music here by far. I wasn't even disappointed when Funck briefly joins in seven minutes in like he's a wraith creeping out of a grave.
And with The Valley, and the album with it, done, I just had to start over to see how everything felt in the wake of that epic closer. I found that it played a little better, that vibe well and truly established. The album actually got lighter on a second listen, as if there was a ray of sunlight threatening to add colour to Thou's now traditional black and white woodcut cover art, even if it doesn't manage to come good on its threat. Every song improves on a second listen and Funck doesn't seem quite so intrusive, though he never becomes welcome.
I really wish I could hear this without that harsh voice, though. I was actually tempted to drop this to a 6/10 but I think that would be unfair. There's too much good stuff here for that to sit right with me. However, my 7/10 might well have been higher had I been able to wave a magic wand and make Rundle the sole voice. Certainly, the lesson of this collaboration is that she works fantastically well with Thou and I hope they work together again, in only slightly different circumstances.