Along with Holding Absence‘s self-titled album that released in January, Thornhill‘s debut album is a release that has inspired a buzz of anticipation for me this year. Arriving like a gift in my inbox for review, The Dark Pool was a present that I wanted to unwrap carefully and deliberately; savouring it and its moments of first listen, knowing they would never happen again.
As much as I know and love the band’s effort on Butterfly, I began my review deliberately trying not to fixate on that EP’s flavour of sound persisting into what I’d hear in The Dark Pool. Instead of looking for something specific, I was more curious how the quintet (featuring vocalist Jacob Charlton, guitarists Matt Van Duppen and Ethan McCann, bassist Nick Sjogren, and drummer Ben Maida) would creatively approach an album, and what the larger canvas might have Thornhill reveal of themselves.
After its ominous synthy melody and muffled beats state of affairs, first track “Views From The Sun” swiftly sets a Leo DiCaprio-esque “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD” tone; riding satisfyingly high, proud, and shining in its role as album opener. The same synth continues, with thicker riffs joining in, feeling like a full and gloriously harmonious rain. It’s undeniably a great start to an album, given all of this is experienced within the first 30 seconds or so. Tempted to stop and smash a pre-order link, I continue.
Swiftly gaining complexity, dense technical guitar grabs focus, and Jacob Charlton’s long held notes become tense screams. Though history shows Thornhill can hold the meanings to their songs close to their chest, the song’s title coupled with its growing instrumental tension comes across like a breathless moment of decision in the scene of an apocalyptic movie. Buzzing and grinding riffs in isolation, with vocals drifting away in the intensity, only add to the urgent feeling of needing to make a choice.
The beautiful chorus is heavy with regret and release, as two seem to be dividing, as far apart as existing on separate planets. Seeping into another section (that I don’t really want to call a ‘verse’), the fluidity and softer vocal has a magical quality to it; coming across like there’s untapped internal knowledge. There’s something so wholeheartedly satisfying through every second of this song. Even implied mental occupation is easy to swallow when sung angelically and while being rocked by tumbling rhythms and bass, persistent melodies, and eerie layers.
I found that I didn’t want to write about it. I just wanted to be swept up in the experience of the other world that was being sonically painted by Thornhill in my ears. In that ‘world’, loaded pauses before dense and punishing riffage hits like an explosion that consumes everything. In this world, the end is here and we’re apart from one another, and it’s rough and tumultuous – and that’s exactly how it sounds. When we return to something similar what was heard in the song’s first 30 seconds, it’s defiance instead of joy.
I do know and love “Nurture” in isolation courtesy of when it was released as a single. In the context of the album, it has a “let’s go” quality, perhaps pulling further into the ‘story’ of The Dark Pool. Its fierce and solid intro abates for a weightless swim in a puddle of adoration, before the stinging reality of idolatry strikes the protagonist with raw force.
The brilliantly anthemic chorus sweetly calls for the obsession to be brought to life, with the noisy reality of rough (yet delectable) riffs. Gaining severity, the affection turns to affliction, and a swirling and serious interlude shows how the increasing pull for more is infecting the protagonist’s self-view. Thornhill have us hovering in uncertainty before a smackdown in punishing angst, with sharpened riffs painting a violent breakdown.
Charlton rides on the wave of “Black out my eyes” into the rugged surf of reality, with the drum-thumped bitter pill of acknowledgement of “I’ve been fighting to see someone who isn’t there”. The song’s final chorus is just a further cherry on top of this deliciousness.
“I need to be sure of you”
“The Haze” buries me from the beginning with its darkness. Wrestling and oppressive rhythms keep me both withheld and tossed about. Thornhill seem at ease flexing instrumental muscles, and because of this have me focus more on the experience of the music than them specifically. As though representing an internal voice or thought process, Charlton’s sweetly sung vocals share understanding, and Nick Sjogren’s bass wraps warmly in this otherwise tense scene.
I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure what the song is about. It speaks like a goodbye, but a farewell which benefited the protagonist. Heart heaviness shows up here for me, and the imagery in the lyrics of leaving something damaging for something better reinforce my thoughts on the song’s meaning. At times Charlton’s steady voice cutting through and treading lightly above the instrumental storm is unnerving, but is literally matching what’s being lyrically shared though (“Walk through the rain / A daze”).
A chugging intensity that’s also kind of buried establishes itself as ‘the haze’, establishing a fog of sorts that breezes away into something floatier. And again I’m left feeling like “Fuck this review stuff, I just want to be lost in this”. The atmosphere is light and dreamy, and also tough to put into words. Beautiful and fantastical are two good words! I’m swept away nonetheless, left light and flowy through the chorus and confronted with a breakdown that serves as a mark of finality.
With an incredible otherworldly introduction “Red Summer”‘s synth melody coupled with searing guitar has me feel further things that I can’t put into words. I’m too busy loving it to consider the best way to say that it’d be like if early Muse and Stranger Things theme had a baby, and why do I feel like crying? As if in a dream, I float while lines are vocally delivered through a haze and a military-esque rhythm adds seriousness: “All these faces turn into sand.”
And then it echoes out, morphing into an orchestral-slash-metalcore beast and my skin is left tingling. I decided that if I could swim in this song, I would. Instead I tear up and mutter “holy shit” under my breath, and feel stunned and delighted at Thornhill creating something so impressively full of life and magic. Left generously instrumental, we can soak this up and stay in this dream space. Almost seeming out-of-body, Charlton returns, and it’s as if we’re watching a dream of his, or something else fantastical.
By the time “The sky can’t hold us all” rains down, I’m practically bawling at how beautiful this sonic painting is, as we rise upward and grasp another’s hand on our climb. Words that waft away made of smoke billow out to nothing in a serene space, before gentle thought is lifted into determination to “save them all”… or at least a wish to do so that is left hanging in the silence. I’m repeatedly left speechless at how brilliant this piece of music is, and how its swaying softness makes way for torrents of something darker.
“Drowning in the dark pool”
Pale and whispy, a looping synth melody joins Charlton’s barely-there vocals at the start of “In My Skin”. The atmosphere of an all-surrounding light fog adds to what’s being shared lyrically, implying an overwhelming discomfort in what they see reflected back at them by a mirror. Gaining more of a sense of reality, the tension and struggle sharply rises to a high precipice before a ‘chorus’ that comes with two voices; one compliant and calm, and one screaming.
Turbulent yet smooth, “In My Skin” features a myriad of layers and flashes of sound or effect that appear and are then swiftly gone again. It all creates something that feels uncomfortable as well as unavoidable, a confusing bombardment. My right ear becomes filled with a guitar as Charlton screams “Just leave me, and stay within”, and everything seems to grow in further turbulence. Illusions threaten to shatter with a fuller and heavier moment.
I’m speechless at how incredible Charlton is proving himself to be on this album at every turn, and how a teetering-on-the-edge call into the abyss sparks a rush of emotion in me. The shifts that Thornhill take from meatier metalcore (and look, it’s not even really that.. there’s too much other stuff going on to limit it to that word) into dreamier atmospheres makes me think of someone switching from being a person functioning in the world or being lost in their own thoughts and mind, which includes discomfort of how they appear. Coupled with the rush of emotion from the vocals, a searing guitar solo just about kills me in what it adds. Incredible, all of it.
“I know the night gets dark”
“All The Light We Don’t See” has me assume it’s a purely instrumental interlude from its beginning, giving off a similar dreamy and pensive vibe that reminds me of Night Verses‘ “Glitch in the You I Thought I Knew”. A sweet melody is steadily built upon before Charlton angelically joins, asking to no longer be in this world. It’s eerie in its light sweetness surrounding a sentiment so dark.
As shared in the presser, Charlton wrote seventh song “Lily & The Moon” after thinking about his ageing dog. In his words “Lily is really struggling at the moment, her eyes, her mind and her body are all ageing, so it makes me look at her and think ‘am I doing enough?’.” This concern is sonically apparent from the song’s urgent and punishing introduction. Though this pulls back when the vocals join in, the seriousness is never far away, while Charlton croons “You’re so sweet”. Doting and dedicated, this attentive love becomes airy and otherworldly when loss breezes in. In yet another great chorus, hope is affixed to there perhaps being some other way to be with someone you love.
“Lily & The Moon” hits hard for this reviewer who has lost someone she loved, coming up to a year ago. So when Charlton defiantly screams as to what he’d do to reunite, it hits brutally, aptly bolstered by thick and technical instrumentation. It’s a stand-out moment, and something you need to hear. The weight of the reality of loss coupled with hope of reuniting makes this a tense piece of music, but it’s beautifully lifted by unconditional love beyond limits as expressed by Charlton.
When I arrive at track number 8 of 11, I have pangs of not wanting this to be over. But I persist and the familiar “Coven” shows up here; a piece of music I initially struggled to get into, but have since fully embraced in my personal listening. Ben Maida’s effort on drums easily pulls focus on this track, but every facet adds to an eerie and skin-crawling atmosphere. Slithering and concerning, “Coven” reveals two voices; one of something consuming and controlling (which I understand as being anxiety personified), and one who is fighting against that control.
Terror is impressively delivered in “Coven” with screams and punishing riffs, and also with a pervading undercurrent of that control persisting regardless of what is done. The panic of “Save yourself and run” and its fade into something dark and cavernous is fitting for the all-consuming presence. This song’s concept could have potentially formed a cool and grotesque video, with an entity breathing down a character’s neck while they try pointlessly to escape something that exists under the floor, under the bed, and in their hair.
“Coven” has two personalities in its seduction and control and the toxic outcome of this. Isabel Charlton’s vocals in their stark lightness paint the sweeter personality, all while chaos rains down and Jacob’s screams rattle the cage of control. Beastly riffs and a light melody have it all feel like an unhappy ending.
“Human” flexes rhythmic muscles early on, and comes coupled with a defeated flavour of heaviness. Sharpened guitar in my left ear and Charlton singing lightly in both of them has me lost in all that’s coming at me. I find “Human” to be the most erratic of the album, having me adrift and tossed about in the waves of sound. And as I type that while continuing to listen, stormy weather literally strikes my ears in “Human” with whistling winds and sheets of rain.
The sun is soon revealed though, where it comes across (in a bouncier and brighter clarity) that things might be simpler than they are. But the clarity is soon seemingly lost when “Are we nothing at all?” sinks into the fabric of the song, while bass notes connect gently and guitar rains down. Dense in contemplating what makes us human, how things happen, and what really matters, “Human” seems to tie impactfully into the theme of forgiveness and connecting meaningfully in the time we have while alive. Finally on “Human”, it should be unsurprising by now for me to say that Charlton is mindblowing in his sky-high flights of voice, and my heart wavers dutifully along with his pleas. It doesn’t get old how ridiculously skilled this band is.
Instrumental track “Netherplace” is cold and sombre and digital bytes show up along with piano. It comes across almost too heavy with each piano note, feeling like it’s dragging behind while ethereal hums continue. This picks up into something with more of a skip to it; refreshingly lightened by the simple synth melody/pulse. This is something I wouldn’t have expected of Thornhill at all and yet in the context of the album this works perfectly.
And speaking of perfect, album closer “Where We Go When We Die” embodies that, having me fall in love at first listen when it was released as a single. With its urgency and pockets of questioning, all I can think of is the music video; a simple drawing seems to foreshadow a doomsday event, loved ones disintegrate, being drawn into an alien aircraft and suspended in reflection of life. Thornhill seem at home in every one of these phases and how it’s sonically expressed. They share believable destructive fury, gentle surrender to the idea of something heavenly, easy contemplation, and driving determination to make it through.
I’m fascinated by “Where We Go When We Die” now in the context of the album, and how so many of these songs express thoughts about mortality, what it means to be alive, and wondering what we’re striving for. And in a flash I feel like Thornhill have written an album about love, and that the (perhaps fictional/metaphorical) enquiry into the darkness of the reflective pool refers to having faced existential questions and thoughts and come up with either more questions or their own answers. Ending the album with the line “I need you to remember” is a potent finish, reinforcing that all we are in the end is memories in others’ lives who remain. The answer to all of the questions of what is the point and what makes us human all circles back around to love and connection. And even if we face insecurity about what we see in the mirror, want to sever the ethereal connections that keep us here, or become paralysed with anxiety, we are human, with “short lease”‘s as As Cities Burn say.
There’s nothing I’d change about this album. If I take a moment and listen to the tracks of Butterfly now, The Dark Pool seems like it has a whole other dimension added to Thornhill’s sound. This is a stunning leap forward in the band’s trajectory, while still keeping signature qualities that longtime fans are familiar with. They’ve spread their songwriting wings and invited in their own influences and experimental ideas. It has unquestionably worked for the five piece. And while they’ve nailed it, I feel like this is just the beginning.
The immersive experience of The Dark Pool is its greatest feature as far as I’m concerned. I felt repeatedly invited to just surrender to the experience of what was being shared and to soak up the atmosphere and little worlds that showed up along the way. It’s a credit to Thornhill for creating something that’s so beautifully all-surrounding and open about what it is, while also being remarkably new territory for them and their sound. I loved getting swept up in this album.
None. I could have easily taken in another 10 songs.
The Butterfly has evolved into its next form. Beautiful, moving, and full of life, The Dark Pool is set to blow expectations out of the water.