Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Thou have long cemented themselves as sludge metal royalty, however oxymoronic that phrase is. Differentiating themselves from their fellow bayou-dwellers from down the road in New Orleans i.e. Eyehategod and Crowbar, the band have long since proven their credibility in producing dirty, festering metal. On Umbilical, Thou prove that their bite hasn’t dulled one bit.

Opener ‘Narcissist’s Prayer’ sets the tone for the album’s uncompromising nihilism, kicking the door open while wailing atop a crushing riff. The track stomps through six minutes, culminating in the repetition of “So die” as the lingering hint of the unwavering doom to come. What follows is ‘Emotional Terrorist’ which contains as strong a hook you’re going to get whilst not relenting for a second. Thou’s history of covering grunge bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains no doubt contribute to this ability, and it’s not exactly surprising. Nirvana’s Bleach has some really sludgy elements, mainly because there’s a heavy dose of Melvins worship in the mix, so this model of sludge gunk smeared atop contagious songwriting isn’t unprecedented. The percussive stop-start of ‘Emotional Terrorist’s central earworm soaks into your brain, it’s addictive songwriting. It’s the mark of an excellent band when they can produce these nuggets of songwriting prowess that have you digging through mounds of other music to find something that scratches that same itch.

‘Lonely Vigil’ opens with a discordant, wading motion that evokes the likes of Primitive Man in its apocalyptic dread. The track carries this shroud of suffocating atmosphere, like carbon monoxide, throughout its runtime and when it ends there’s a huge gasp of relief; a gasp of air that’s immediately knocked out of you by the opening gut kick of ‘House of Ideas.’ The structuring of the track list is well done and adds to this really oppressive smog that accumulates over the record.

‘I feel Nothing When You Cry’ has a hardcore push to it that feels like some of the fastest paced sludge you’ll ever hear. The track demands movement, with this whirlpool of guitars dragging you ever closer to its frantic centre. The drums – like debris crashing at terminal velocity being pushed by the gale-force riffs – clatter around, contributing to the Armageddon.

‘I Return as Chained and Bound to You’ captures the titular feeling of being tethered through the quagmire of its swampy dirge. The track wallows in the coagulated dregs and clots into pustules of bitter, engorged metal. ‘The Promise’ delivers some of the filthiest riffs on the record, with my face contorting with sick glee as it unfurled. ‘Panic Stricken, I Flee’ flirts with melody, breaking the surface of the swamp to see glimmers of light between the foliage before submerging once again. Closer ‘Siege Perilous’ is the final scream from below the mire, soaked in feedback and tar. The progression is wistful and rife with desolation before taking on an embittered ugliness. It’s chief among the album’s most “Holy Shit”-inducing expressions of hopelessness and really tightens the knot on the end of the album’s nihilistic themes.

Yeah, I really loved this record. Sludge metal is one of my favourite genres, bringing together two big loves of mine in hardcore punk and stoner doom. When it’s done right, the degrees of variation can produce some unbelievably solid bands like Eyehategod, Acid Bath, Iron Monkey and so on. What I’ve always loved about Thou is that they don’t sound like any of the genre’s classic material. Sure, there’s common DNA, they’re in the same genre, but they’ve always just sounded like themselves. Umbilical is, in my eyes, going to become one of Thou’s classic records in a catalogue to rival any of the genre’s legends.

Thou: Umbilical – Out 31st May 2024 (Sacred Bones)

Prayer – YouTube