Gareth JS Thomas has built a prolific and versatile catalogue in noise rock and post-punk bands, serving in Mayors of Miyazaki, Silent Front, Sly and the Family Drone, Action Beat and USA Nails. (Please note, the latest word from the Ministry of Culture is that we should all start saying people ‘serve in’ rather than ‘play in’ bands, in recognition of the costs musicians bear for the good of us all. I don’t make the rules. Consider yourselves notified.) On the most recent USA Nails record, ‘Life Cinema‘, in the Thomas-sung track ‘You Wish’ there are two lines that struck me: “In my dreams I am the second best noise artist in Mitcham” and “in my dreams I weep.” At first they sounded very funny to me, then, like all the best jokes, they started to seem deeper and sadder, about having and also being self-conscious about what are ultimately only mid-sized aspirations. Until about two weeks ago I didn’t know Thomas was in fact a noise musician. I’ve never been to Mitcham – I assume it’s somewhere over there in Europe Great Brexland – but having heard ‘The Incredible Years’, Thomas’ new solo EP, out now on Bezirk Tapes, it’s hard to imagine him coming second best in any music scene.
If you know Thomas’ bands, which you should, you might expect this EP to be loud, dissonant, and energetic. You’d be about half right. ‘The Incredible Years’ is dissonant and in a way high energy, but it’s a jittery, pent-up energy rather than the move-fast-destroy-all-obstacles ferocity of his other projects. Thomas trades distorted guitars for piano, making a sound that’s quieter and more introspective. There’s a lot of low chords with tons of sustain, and individual high pitched notes, some of them recorded backward, and with enough tinny reverb that they begin to edge up to shrieky. There are some gorgeous, ghostly tenor swells, like an otherworldly cousin to the cello, and there are mostly incomprehensible vocals – some moaning, some pitch shifted and distorted speech, and some monotone talking recorded so quietly that it’s more like muttering than actual communication.
I think my favourite song here is ‘Bows And Arrows Against The Lightning’, which spends about two minutes on some airy droning – a stretched out recording of a piano, I assume – and a repeated phrase low in the mix “I am healthy” or maybe “I am helpless” or “I am helping.”A percussive bass tone begins to fade in, getting louder and steadily sharper – sharp not in pitch but in the sense of cutting, the way a knife is sharp – as it gets more trebly and mid range for the song’s remaining two and a half minutes. It build and builds, increasing tension, then suddenly stops, with no resolution, allowing a brief moment of silence before the quieter and (only) slightly more at ease next song, ‘Century’.
On ‘Hyphen British’, which might also be my favourite, Thomas adds a drum set. He bangs on it like a proper rock drummer (which he is, having toured recently with Action Beat) but the rhythm is more circular than most rock – dunDUNdundunDUNdundunDUNdundun – with lots of toms and snare. The drumming bring a different energy to the composition but in a way that amplifies rather than conflicts with the droning feel of the EP. Just before the three minute mark the drums drop out, replaced by some distorted and largely unintelligible talking, maybe by a computer. I can pick out something about school and something “I don’t actually like.” I think I hear different and unpleasant bits each time I listen to this part. It’s disconcerting.
Thomas has made a striking video for ‘Hyphen British’ composed of x-rays and CT scans of his own body. In early 2018, he was on tour with his band Silent Front, and their van crashed. Thomas broke his neck. The record is shaped by that harrowing experience. He made it while convalescing, which required him to mostly stay indoors and move around less. That might explain some of the feelings ‘The Incredible Years’ conveys – loneliness, longing, frustration, a sense of being stuck.
In an interview on the Taker Wide podcast Thomas was relatively upbeat about the accident, saying that all things considered he’s lucky. In that interview he referred to the accident as an occupational hazard. That reminded me of a line sung by Freddy Vinehill-Cliffe, who serves in the no wave noise unit Thank: “tied to a chair, I am told that great works of art have come from my suffering, that it is for the greater good, and the future of music.” ‘The Incredible Years’ is a great work of art informed by Thomas’ injuries, and it’s a work of art that’s at least for the good of me personally (which is all I really mean when I say “the greater good” anyway). In the video for ‘Hyphen British’ he shows viewers some of those injuries, through the CT scans. That depiction is simultaneously intimate and only partially comprehensible. That’s a decent metaphor for this record: in some parts of the video I think we literally see Thomas’ heart, but we see it in an abstracted way that adds to rather than resolves ambiguity.
I was playing ‘The Incredible Years’ in my kitchen while making dinner and my six year old walked in, frowned, cocked her head, and asked “is this music creepy?” I said “what do you think, does this sound creepy to you?” “I’m not sure.” I think she’s onto something; she’s tracking onto how the record evokes ambiguous emotional states. ‘The Incredible Years’ often sounds like a film depiction of someone’s internal monologue at a time when they don’t particularly want to be in their own mind and aren’t entirely clear what’s happening to them. The way the occasional vocal parts sound indistinct amplifies that. Not being totally sure what some of the lyrics are makes the EP more troubling, and the parts you miss make you listen harder. To me, this release portrays in sound what it’s like to want – or maybe not want, but really need – to connect with another person, and to carry on in the meantime absent that connection. Thomas takes his heart and shows it to an audience who don’t know how to read it. I find that powerful.
‘The Incredible Years‘ offers a mix of artificial and organic sounds, craving warmth against a looming cold, offering an uncomfortably intimate closeness – literally inside someone’s head and chest – against a cavernous and impersonal backdrop. Despite, and in some ways because of, its highly expressive abstraction, Thomas’ music ends up feeling very personal and human.