Review Summary: The Thermals are a fiery, lo-fi ball of nerves on their catchy, loud, endurance-testing debut.
After amicably disbanding last year, the story of Portland indie-punks the Thermals can now be told, re-told, and argued about from start to finish (although with so many band reunions these days, it's only "the end""). Here's my version: from their scrappy early days would arise 2006's The Body, the Blood, the Machine
, their third and definitively best album. Among indie circles, TBTBTM
has been hailed extensively and there may not be much more to add; its blistering attacks on religious hypocrisy and the Bush-era war march were impossibly catchy and triumphantly righteous. Their decent follow-up Now We Can See
was melodically brighter, but from there on out, the drama relinquished and the stakes never again felt as high as they did back in 2006 (these were now the Obama years, after all). The Thermals pivoted towards more personal songwriting for a while and the hooks grew steadily less remarkable until 2016's We Disappear
, which was plainly forgettable.
But back at the scrappy start, before the edges started smoothing out, the Thermals broke out the four-track recorder and laid down their explosive debut album More Parts Per Million
. Over 27 disorienting minutes, the band rampages across 13 punchy, urgent tracks of melodic, snarling, polarizing pop punk.
From day one, frontman and lyricist Hutch Harris demonstrated a knack for earworm melody served with a mischievous bite. Sing-along wordplay plays out amidst the nihilistic energy of distorted guitar fuzz and crashing drums, filling out the lo-fi sound. Harris's distinctive, piercing vocals cut through like a knife, delivering catchy lines that stick with you, despite the surrounding racket. Lines like "Get fat and waste/Get smashed in the face" on opener "It's Trivia," or "Oh two I know, I know, I know" on highlight "I Know the Pattern" are hypnotic nonsense. Much of the album, particularly the standout track "No Culture Icons," sounds like an anxious rallying cry for some vague mission; a coded cause. The Thermals have never taken themselves too seriously, and Harris's absurd sense of humor is lyrically clear, but that doesn't make More Parts Per Million
sound any less urgent.
The elephant in the room is the album's recording quality. Upon release, Sub Pop glowingly described the album, four-track recorded in Harris's Portland house, as "no-fi." It may be a fine line of debate as to whether More Parts Per Million
is more energy-infused or held back by its skeletal production quality. The scuzzy homemade aesthetic recalls the DIY charms of Guided by Voices, and yet the band's second album ***in' A
, a similar collection of barn-burning tracks, does seem to benefit from the cleaner, proper studio finish. Either way, More Parts Per Million
is noisy from start to finish. Its "non-production" is the brush that paints the album for its duration, for better or for worse.
While More Parts Per Million
never really touches the abandon of hardcore punk, the Thermals still embrace the careening relentlessness of the genre in their debut. By the Thermals' standard of melodic pop-punk, if TBTBTM
is precision targeted, More Parts Per Million
is a breathless pummel. And while the album's unabating sneer and scratchy recording quality can be a test of endurance, it's clear that the Thermals' explosive origins were far more compelling than their final acts.