Music Reviews
Desperate Ground

The Thermals Desperate Ground

(Saddle Creek) Rating - 6/10

You know when a band announces a new album and the concept alone sounds like the exact album you’ve always wanted them to make? I’ll admit, when The Thermals first described their new album as a cross between their debut, More Parts Per Million, and their epic breakthrough The Body, The Blood, the Machine, I grew suspicious that the band had been monitoring my thoughts for the past year or so. Of course, I wouldn’t be the only one hoping for this: Both albums are indeed fan favorites, and the idea of Parts Per Million’s ultra-fast, ultra-infectious riffs colliding with The Body’s larger than life hooks and themes on one record sounded like a purely indulgent fantasy record for fans to blare out their car stereos.

The most crucial thing I’ve learned from Desperate Ground, however, is that when you wish for a band to record albums like they did ten years earlier, be prepared to hear a lot of songs you’ve probably already heard before. And, in the case of Desperate Ground, very little of anything you haven’t from the band. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a band like The Thermals – the trio has largely stuck with their brand of catchy, kinetic punk through their five album run, and, at its best, you wouldn’t want much more from the band. The Thermals have always had a talent for making riffs you’ve probably heard a million other bands play sound completely fresh and exhilarating, whether it’s from the personality of singer Hutch Harris or the raw conviction they use to set fire to power chords. But while many of these characteristics are still in firm place and make for a pretty enjoyable experience all-around, you can’t help but feel that the band known for holding nothing back is, well, holding something back.

Since The Body, The Blood, The Machine broke new ground for the band back in 2006, each successive Thermals album has attempted to flesh out their simplistic sound even further and explore new, riskier ideas. But if the recent reissues of their first three albums indicate anything, The Thermals have been determined to rekindle the fiery spark of their early output by going completely primal, limiting each song to about three or four power chords, three minutes TOPS, and no BS whatsoever. This does make for a number of assuredly catchy power pop songs, like album single Born to Kill and The Sunset, and proves that, ten years later, The Thermals have not lost sight of where they began. However, because everything is constructed so similarly, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish one song off Desperate Ground from the other on your first few listens, and it easily makes for the least varied effort the group has dished out yet.

What makes the majority of these tracks blur together even more – as well as far less captivating than anything on their first three albums – is the album’s underwhelming production. In this respect, I’m actually amazed The Thermals managed to drop the ball on this one. The band took all the necessary measures to capture that raw, serrated sound from their debut, hiring a producer known to recapture 90s fuzz on tape and adding a subtle layer of vocal distortion to at least make it sound like a lo-fi record. But while Type-A Thermals ragers like You Will Be Free and Where I Stand should detonate upon impact, the bands energy feels suppressed under murky guitar tones and an overall lack of force from the rhythm section. I’d imagine these tracks sound much more robust in a live setting, but until this point, the band never had a problem capturing their live sound on record before.

Well, that covers the attempted More Parts Per Million half of the album, but where does The Body, The Blood, The Machine come into play? We’ve already established that it’s not in the variety or crushing sound department, but lyrically, it’s a different story. On paper, The Thermals never seemed like a band raring to tackle the big issues with their scrappy, juvenile power pop, but whether they’re bringing down religious tyranny or maniacal dictatorships (or both simultaneously), they’ve always come shouting with a message. On the menu this time, however, is war, and it’s not a heroic picture. Songs on the album play both sides accordingly, as tracks like Born to Kill and The Sword By My Side envision blood-thirsty killing machines hunting the battle-ravaged protagonists of I Go Alone and You Will Find Me. The lyrics add some necessary danger and heft to the otherwise safe sounding album, yet it is disappointing that there’s no variation to the music regarding whether they’re focusing on the armed killer in the brush or paranoid prey, severely reducing the weight of each scenario.

The Thermals promised that their next album would be “loud, fast, incredibly scary and undeniably catchy.” The album we received, Desperate Ground, succeeds in most of these characteristics, but only at the bare minimum level. The band has undoubtedly not lost their pop intuition, as many of Desperate Grounds best moments do stick, and the album is loud and fast in the most conservative sense of the word, but for an album all about the horrors of war, scary really seemed to go out the window. Desperate Ground is certainly a passable entry into The Thermal’s catalogue, but the only thing that I’m left to fear is that the chaotic, exhilarating Thermals of the past may be long gone.