Small Band, Huge Target

The Thermals take aim at our fascist regime.

I gotta come clean; when the Thermals' first album, More Parts Per Million, debuted on Sub Pop in 2003, I didn't predict much of a shelf life for the pop-punkers. It was a damn good record, to be sure, full of chain-saw guitar chords, bouncy melodies, driving backbeats, and one of the most sarcastic sneers I'd heard since first discovering the Lookout! Records catalog as a teenager. But I passed them off as a bunch of Portland baristas who happened to make some good basement recordings. It was unfair, I know. Then, they teamed up with producer Chris Walla (of Death Cab fame) and delivered 2004's Fuckin' A, which found them seriously fleshing out those aforementioned elements to make one of the most catchy and explosive damn punk records since the Ramones made Rocket to Russia in 1977. It was big, loud, punchy, and most of all, a hell of a lot of fun to spin. But as well reviewed as Fuckin' A was, the Thermals still seemed to hang in the indie-rock margins (though I hear they earned huge acclaim in Eastern Europe . . . no, seriously). But now they've signaled that they won't be stepping down any time soon. Their latest, The Body, the Blood, the Machine, takes a punk-rock aim at one of the biggest targets in the world right now—the U.S. government. But instead of making their playful version of Green Day's American Idiot, the Thermals decided to craft an Orwellian Vonnegut-esque satirical epic, in which the U.S. is governed by a bunch of fascist Jesus freaks. Sound eerily familiar? Perhaps, because it's almost true. The story of The Body, the Blood, the Machine is a vague one but, at the same time, haunting enough to be downright scary. Lyrically, this is the Thermals at their most dour. Tracing the frantic fleeing of an expat and his lady from these right-wing monsters, singer Hutch Harris delivers lines wrought with escapism ("I can see she's afraid/That's why we're escaping/So we won't have to die, we won't have to deny/Our dirty God, our dirty bodies"). Later, he dishes out the pure terror these hypothetical U.S. leaders impose on "I Might Need You to Kill" with the line, "They'll pound you with the love of Jesus. . . . They'll own your days." Produced by Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty in Oregon City, The Body, the Blood, the Machine is also the Thermals at their most sonically varied. The sound is razor sharp, and there are even some wiry (albeit limited) guitar solos. Bassist Kathy Foster remains the pogo-stick thumper she's always been, while Harris gives his nasally vocal syntax an exercise in propulsion. Hell, there's even a ballad thrown in for good measure ("Test Pattern"). With The Body, the Blood, the Machine, I take back my doubts about the Thermals. They've proved they are a resilient and creative bunch, a true punk force to be reckoned with. What's even better is that they know how much pop-punk is too much, calling an end to the album at 38 minutes, leaving no fat to be trimmed. It's a strange and terrifying concept album, sure, one made even more terrifying by its near reality. But at least you can tap your toes and sing along to it.

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