Dystopian fictions hold a dual appeal during dark times: They serve as cautionary inspirations for hopeful protesters to hold aloft in warning, and they act as gentle reminders that things aren't quite that bad yet—in the midst of Reagan's 1984 we could still sleep tight knowing that at least it wasn't Orwell's 1984. So it is with the Thermals' transcendent, conceptual masterwork The Blood, the Body, the Machine, a new addition to the dystopian canon that's basically the album Green Day weren't clever enough to make with American Idiot—a scathing, scary glimpse of a red-state, theocratic future America, all Infinite Justice and endless, abstract war and terror.
"I didn't sit down and decide at the start that it would be conceptual at all," recalls Thermals frontman Hutch Harris. "I wanted it to be political, but I wanted to make a political record that was more original than a lot of punk. A lot of political punk songs get dated really quickly, or it's just too simple, just like, 'smash the state!' for whatever reason.
"I wanted to find out, to sing about what's really behind politics and what's pushing it, and with this administration, where does the money come from, and what do these people want? And obviously, the Christian right is the answer here for the most part."
The music is fittingly taut and desperate given the subject matter, full of sleepless hooks and terrified, fast-running rhythms. "Pillar of Salt" captures a feeling of joyous escape, riding an insistent, distorted synth hook off into freedom. "Power Doesn't Run on Nothing" is a rollicking steamroller of a song, crushing and brutally focused, with Harris straining his voice to an emotional breaking point while maintaining a fiercely determined cadence—if you don't feel a chill when the guitars drop out for a moment around the two-minute mark, then you might not be breathing. If this record doesn't make you want to go out and buy a guitar, then you're not listening to it loud enough.
Of course, it's Harris's cleverly apocalyptic lyrical turns that give the album its powerfully charged imagery and heavy cultural currency. In Harris's future imperfect, God is an angry Big Brother, and the state is complicitly tyrannical—it's equal parts Old Testament wrath and evangelical Armageddon fever dream. "I got into writing something fictional because that opened up a whole world for me with so many places to go. Because even though I was basing it on the present, as soon as it was a fantasy, I could just sing about whatever I wanted to."
After the album's opening swells of faded church organs give way to distorted guitar on "Here's Your Future," Harris sings, "God reached his hand down from the sky/He flooded the land then he set it afire/He said, 'Fear me again, know I'm your father/Remember that no one can breathe under water,'" simultaneously evoking both biblical acts and the disaster of inconvenient climate change. This is one of Harris's neatest tricks throughout the record—superimposing the mythical, biblical past on his own dark images of the future to construct stirring critiques of our present. The album's even structured loosely along a biblical narrative arc, beginning with prophecy ("Here's Your Future," "I Might Need You to Kill") and ending with judgment day ("We Hold the Sound"), but with modernity clearly visible throughout.
If the album's biblical references sometimes seem bitterly personal, they are. "I have no relationship right now at all with God or the church," says Harris. "[But] I was raised Catholic. [Bassist] Kathy [Foster] was, too. We were everything but confirmed."
"Up until high school I was in youth groups and stuff, and there were a lot of positive things in it. But I was disillusioned by some of the leaders, just in my personal experience, people I knew that seemed like hypocrites or people that eventually I couldn't look up to. And then also, I just had trouble actually believing, you know, trouble having faith."
But Harris isn't too worried about the looming end of the world. There's still plenty of hope and humor in his lyrics, and the band don't have any plans to slow down in 2007, with U.S. and European tours scheduled through summer and hopes to record a new album in the fall—barring any unexpected cataclysms. "I feel like we're very far from any of that," he says. "It's just a natural human paranoia. People are always thinking the world's about to end."