by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen I spoke with him last week, Thermals' front man Hutch Harris described The Body, The Blood, The Machine as a paranoid fantasy that had two nested storylines. The overarching one told of a future state ruled by Christian fascists, while a second, running as an inevitable undercurrent, described the pains people might take to get away.
Inspiration for the first, Harris said, was the world around us. Inspiration for the second came from the mistrust and terror sown during the Red Scare and cultivated throughout the Cold War. "There're a couple post-apocalyptic songs from the '80s that are all about people escaping or fighting in revolution," Harris said.
Similar feelings of angst, uncertainty and terror were unquestionably echoed by openers (and '80s throwbacks) the Yokohama Hooks. Their sound evokes an artsy, contrarian no-wave that toys with commercial tropes while eschewing their foundation (thoughtless consumption, militarism, tampons, etc). It's an aesthetic best viewed live, where singer Judith Davis can scream, shriek, pout and rant her way through the stations of the quasi-suicidal teen cross. The way she grabbed a fist of hair with one hand, screwed her other into a claw, raised to her toes and sighed "panic" was, honestly, breathtaking.
Though the Thermals get their paranoia from the near future, their live set actually went back further than the Hooks'. The dance-hallishness and general austerity of CenterStage's beautiful second-floor space, along with the incredibly short stage and blocky lighting effects, gave the Thermals' set the feel of a Cold War sock hop. Harris' animated delivery aided the effect, recalling Ed Sullivan-era Beatles plus considerable cynicism.
They began the set with the first three songs off Body, roughly outlining the band's feelings of alienation and oppression in a world of fascist hegemony and extreme cultural conservatism. Harris, gesturing and smiling sardonically, then shot off into various older songs whose lyrics he spat, screamed and sang with the same adamancy he'd given their new work.
The whole thing -- set, setting, performance -- had the harrowing effect of drawing a line between this future Harris fears and a point, some 60 years past, when a different enemy caused such fear in our nation that we gladly traded freedom for the perception of safety. At that time the term "un-American" was a blanket used to mean everything from "communist" to "sodomite." The terms have clearly changed, but the effect of stifling freedom, discourse and dissent has not. The line The Thermals draw between remote past and possible future is dangerously close to intersecting with our troubled present.
In all, the Thermals set clocked in just shy of an hour and 20 minutes. Not bad for a band whose three albums combined barely top an hour and a half. During the band's four-song encore, they played "God and Country." The song finds Harris and company thinking broadly in 2004 about the themes and terms that would lead to their virtuosic third album. This show was at least three years in the making, and probably more like 60.
We'll have details on the second show in the Inlander Showcase Series soon. Remain vigilant.