Written by: Dave Cantrell
So here we are, the final day of the thirteenth month of 2017, otherwise known as January 31, 2018 but for my purposes, it’s the nickest nick of time ever, as it affords me my one last go at those albums that, had I not taken this extra-month opportunity, would have haunted me all my days. And of them, it’s almost assuredly true that none would have left a longer shadow over me than this one. Back again after 2016’s beguilingly opaque-yet-ever-so-lucent debut, Thor & Friends put fierce paid to any notion of ‘sophomore syndrome’ by simply ignoring it, getting on with it, existing. 2018 may begin now.
Released Dec. 1st on LM Dupli-Cation and again featuring the production/engineering team (and musical efforts) of A Hawk & A Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes and Deerhoofian John Dietrich, The Subversive Nature of Kindness returns us to the enigmatic exotica of 2016’s self-titled debut but, amazingly, in a fuller, more evolved form.
Somewhat against the odds when considering the animated verve that informed that first record, the layerings here are more exquisite, the mysteries invoked more deeply, the sonic camera angles pan with a more widely oblique abandon while being bathed simultaneously in a desert-dry audio technicolor that couldn’t be more evocatively direct. Much of this due the instrumental contributions of new collaborators Jhno Delicateer (on Armenian duduk, no less), violin adventurist Aisha Burns and guitarist Adam Torres, the greater use of the (wordless) vocalizations courtesy Oslo-based opera performer Stine Janvin Motland, Michael Gira, and throat singer Enrique Soriah, as well the stronger presence this time ’round of Barnes’ AH&AH bandmate Heather Trost’s string arrangements. But when you cut to the core of it the kudos obtain to the members of the band themselves, whose vision and three-headed inspiration created this daring project in the first place.
Thor Harris, ex-percussion wizard with Swans, marimbist Peggy Ghorbani and multi-instrumentalist Sarah “Goat” Gautier – vibraphone, xylophone, organ, melltron etc – formed with a force-of-nature inevitability in 2015, bent of pursuing the somewhat counter-intuitive sounding objective of expanding minimalism’s select palette. It may surprise, listening to The Subversive Nature…‘s busy intricacies, to find the m-word attached to this music but it is indeed the discipline being both drawn from and respectfully attacked here. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic, perhaps, to assert that Thor & Friends, whatever their intentions, are in the process of reimagining the form in their own image.
From the accretive dream state that gets built in opener “90 Meters,” its structure and tone suggesting Philip Glass wandering the Serengeti (at least to this writer; your results may differ), to “Dead Man’s Hand”‘s ghostly interweaving of a gently hypnotic predictability with slightly jarring, innovative effects – disembodied voices floating early in the mix, tubular bells that sound as if someone’s at the dark castle door – to the dramatically moving, elegaic “Standing Rock” with its sense of spirits hovering for centuries above the havoc and injustices visited upon the indigenous peoples throughout our great appropriated land, this record rather basks in its own invention and does so with a great – and palpable – emotional heft. Even in its statelier moments, as in the three-minute “Mouse Mouse,” where the trio and their cohorts seems marginally more faithful to the compositional strictures inherent, there nonetheless exists – in, for instance, the traipsing search of violin and the lucid tone of the oboe that echoes its path – the push and pull of passion and fear, the quaver, if you will, of a breathing human life. Whereas the outward placidity may be heard and experienced as a type of calm, it’s an intensely lived calm.
In listening to the work of Thor & Friends once comes to understand not only that minimalism, despite its name, is in truth a vast field of limitless potential, but also that that field just had its boundaries pushed out just that much further by The Subversive Nature of Kindness.