The reverent hum of Church organ notes hangs in the air to introduce The Body, The Blood, The Machine – the third album from The Thermals. Vocalist Hutch Harris enters the fray to deliver the album’s opening line: “God reached his down from the sky / He flooded the land, then he set it afire.” Big themes, a razorblade guitar tone and a markedly sincere vocal delivery. Here’s Your Future is about as monumental as openers get.
Based in Portland, Oregon, The Thermals released their third album in 2006 via Sub Pop. A trio until this release, drummer Jordan Hudson quit the band the previous year, following the completion of an unreleased record, We Sleep In A Holy Bed. The band continued as a duo for their next two records, with bassist Kathy Foster behind the kit.
The Thermals’ own biography labels The Body, The Blood, The Machine, rather immodestly, as the band’s “first masterpiece,” describing it as a “terrifying tale of a young couple fleeing a fascist faux-Christian USA.” Although the album is a masterful epic in its melodic and lyrical heft, it breezes by in 35 brief minutes. Tracks such as Returning To The Fold and A Pillar of Salt are fiery vignettes, with simple vocal and guitar melodies, but an absolutely infectious energy.
Lyrically, the band is always witty, but often scathing and curt as well. With the band’s description of a “faux-Christian USA” in mind, they do not criticise religious mythology, but the way it is manifested in contemporary America. Indeed, Harris sings “I still have faith” at one point on the album. Harris saves his vitriol for organised religion and the political appropriation of Christianity that drives the American right-wing. On I Meet Need You To Kill, Harris snarkily bellows “They’ll pound you with the love of Jesus / They follow, they follow.” He suggests that although people believe they are acting out of love and faith, they are ultimately driven by the establishment machine.
This is even visible in the album’s title. The band couples the “body” and “blood” (referring to Christ) with the “machine”, inciting religion as an agent of the manipulative establishment: working against the people rather than for them. Undeniably, their approach to this message is somewhat heavy-handed, but political music tends to be that way.
Disregarding the sentiment of any message, I often find politically motivated music grating because of such oversimplification and idealism, but it is the lyrical poetry and wit of The Thermals that I love, rather than their message. I admire the way that Harris puts his ideas across, without passing judgement on the ideas themselves. Along with the great melodies and the vocals, it is just a constituent part of what makes the album great.
I have long thought that Led Zeppelin wrote their two greatest openers (Black Dog and Rock and Roll) and foolishly placed them both on the same album, rather than saving one. On their third album, The Thermals wrote ten worthy openers. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is an album of unique anthemic energy: its lyrical depth marks it out as an epic on paper, but the heft of the melodies could do it alone even if Harris was singing about his love of eating Weetabix for breakfast.