It isn’t easy for a band to sound convincingly evil nowadays, but Baton Rouge’s Thou is making a strong case for itself. Frontman Bryan Funck leads the band’s nosedive into the abyss, defining the group’s sound with his otherworldly voice, a guttural rattling somewhere between a hiss and a yawn. It certainly isn’t singing, but it’s not exactly screaming, either, which helps Thou avoid screamo/death metal tropes and occupy its own space.
Wednesday night (January 24), Thou opened for doom/stoner metal legends Sleep at a packed Civic Theatre. Thou’s half-hour set was a terrifying experience. Funck moved across the stage sporadically, pacing like a wounded beast. His pain seemed to come from a place of real derangement. There was no eyeliner, black leather, spiked hair, or Satanic imagery, because there didn’t need to be. The hellacious noise did all the talking.
Thou has said in interviews that the band comes from more of a punk background than a metal one. This reluctance towards metal archetypes might not be apparent to casual listeners or viewers of the band’s album art, but its live aesthetic is decidedly punk. The musicians are undercover monsters, dressed in plain clothes, disarming their audience with an illusion of normality and then destroying eardrums with apocalyptic sludge.
The lineup behind Funck was different on Wednesday than it has been when I’ve seen Thou in the past. Founding members/dual guitarists Andy Gibbs and Matthew Thudium were there, but bassist Mitch Wells and drummer Josh Nee were swapped out for new members KC Stafford (bass) and Tyler Coburn (drums). The reasoning behind this lineup change is unclear. Regardless, the sound didn’t suffer. The songs were tough to identify individually for a non-superfan like me, but Thou’s ethos is in a realm of its own. Like a slow-moving doomsday train, the band powered ceaselessly on to the end. The crowd, remarkably still for a hardcore show, stood rapt, too horrified to mosh but too intrigued to look away.
That wasn’t the case during Sleep, who (ironically) brought the crowd roaring back to life. The stripped-down power trio of Al Cisneros (bass, vocals), Matt Pike (guitar) and Jason Roeder (drums) is often dubbed the “ultimate stoner band,” and it’s not hard to see why. Cisneros, the fearless leader, is currently rocking a Rick Rubin-caliber beard, and his stage presence is laid back in a Jerry Garcia sort of way. He often seemed to lose himself spiritually in his own groove, bobbing his head like a turtle. But classifying Sleep as “stoner rock” — while taxonomically correct — is somewhat misleading. Sure, the band loves extended jams. Fine, suspense was built for the Civic set with smoke machines and selected recordings of the moon-landing radio transmission. OK, the last album before Sleep’s 1998 breakup was a single hour-long song called Dopesmoker that tells the story of a roving tribe called the “weedians.” But all that is undercut by raw power.
What separates Sleep from the Phishes and Disco Biscuits of the world is the savagery with which the members attack their instruments. Cisneros claws at his bass at times, creating percussive licks without ever slapping or popping. At other points, he plays it like a guitar, taking extended, shredding solos that disregard his instrument’s traditional backing status and give it a lead role.
Pike isn’t as physically imposing as Cisneros, but he made up for that by going shirtless, exposing a full torso of tattoos. While Cisneros’ setup was simple, with only a wah and a fuzz pedal for added effect, Pike’s was slightly more involved, with an array of six or seven pedals laid out before him to distort his sound. His playing was flashier than Cisneros’, too, more prone to screechy solos decked out in reverb and delay. Still, the two were perfectly in sync all evening, as was Roeder, a relatively new arrival to the group. (Cisneros and Pike are both founding members, so they’ve played together for 27 years, whereas Roeder only joined in 2010, when original drummer Chris Hakius retired abruptly after the band’s first reunion show.)
Sleep’s chugging power ballads were no heavier than Thou’s droning musical creepypastas, but they seemed to inspire a more visceral reaction in the audience. Not long after the band kicked its set off with “Holy Mountain,” a massive pocket formed stage left and five or six rows back, quickly devolving into more of a melee than a traditional mosh. A giant bald man with an imposing grey beard seemed to be controlling traffic for a while until he was taken down from behind by a woman half his size. He went down hard, falling directly on top of her and nearly flattening her into a crepe. She got up woozy, but was back at it within minutes. There was even a stocky, aging yuppie in a shirt and tie moshing along with the best of them. He looked like a Fight Club character.
The set lurched forward into a 20-minute-plus rendition of “Dopesmoker,” a high-octane jam on the earlier, Sabbath-inspired “Dragonaut,” and a more rhythm-driven 2015 single called “The Clarity.” The second half of the set was even heavier than the opening act; Sleep pushed the limits of a stripped-down setup on Dopesmoker subsection “Sonic Titan,” reaching peak levels of synchronized catharsis on Holy Mountain singles “Aquarian” and “From Beyond,” finally closing with “Cultivator,” another Dopesmoker piece that threatened to topple the impressive wall of Marshall amps onto the drummer’s head. There was no encore, no sweeping exit and no goodbye. In fact, the band did not address its audience a single time throughout the night. If nothing else, Sleep and Thou both proved on Wednesday that they are the real deal. Like copper and chromium, they are distinct but unadulterated embodiments of metal, and they aren’t about to let anyone tamper with their style.