"I have a rule about not playing in shorts," Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly said prior to the New Jersey post-hardcore sextet's U.S. tour opener at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia on Friday night. "But I have a pair of cutoffs that I'm gonna whip out just for this show, and then I'll go back to my rule."
Wherefore the momentous occasion? The decidedly no-frills, wood-paneled basement of the church is a notoriously brutal sweatbox even in the dead of winter -- never mind a late-summer Philly evening.
Rickly remembered the room from the last time Thursday played here: Back in 2003, when the band came through on its third album (and major-label debut), War All the Time. Six years later, they were returning in support of this year's fifth LP (and debut for Epitaph), Common Existence, which they re-released last week as a "digital deluxe edition" with five bonus tracks. And the heat was about to be ratcheted up to ungodly degrees for tonight's four-band bill.
Up first was New York's Moving Mountains. Drawing mainly from last year's Deep Elm-released Pneuma and their recent Foreword EP, the foursome pushed their potent screamo anthems into artier territory with epic, atmospheric twin-guitar crescendos that often resembled Explosions in the Sky.
Next, the Louisville, Kentucky, trio Young Widows challenged the audience with their sinister, enigmatic post-punk. The distorted bass groove that ushered in the first song seemed to auger an explosive payoff that never arrived. Instead, singer-guitarist Evan Patterson skirted around conventional structures, building tension with his sinewy riffs yet offering little release, not even in his baleful howl. And so the crowd took it upon itself to relieve the frustration, forming the first circle pit of the night and sending the temperature in the already stifling room soaring; rivers of sweat poured down Patterson's arm and off the neck of his Telecaster.
But that was nothing compared to what greeted Seattle prog-screamo trio the Fall of Troy. Primed like plastique, the room detonated as the threesome opened with "Spartacus" and charged right into "Rockstar Nailbomb." Standing at the lip of the stage to take photos, I was absolutely crushed by the surge of bodies lunging at lanky, long-haired singer-guitarist Thomas Erak as he finger-tapped his fretboard while drummer Andrew Forsman and bassist Frank Ene locked into the barrage. I managed to dodge several crowd-surfers tumbling overhead, but within minutes, everyone was completely drenched in sweat, the air became stifling and suffocating, and the expressions on the faces churning in the maelstrom seemed stuck between ecstasy and fear.
And then things swung decidedly towards fear: Four tunes or so into the set, the threesome stopped mid-song while Erak admonished the crowd: "I've got the fucking flu and you just made us stop playing -- if you're gonna keep being that way, get the fuck out." Trying to protect my body and camera from the repeated battering, the half-hour set seemed to last an eternity. Afterward, a kid standing next to me said, "Fall of Troy is one of my favorite bands, but I couldn't wait for that to be over."
Though hopeful that the worst was over, it was not to be as Thursday arrived on the stage. Standing in front of the drum kit, back to the crowd, his right arm pointed skyward with microphone in hand, Rickly was indeed sporting shorts that revealed a "Sweet Edge" cupcake tattoo on his right calf. And then he launched into the crowd as Thursday ripped into War All the Time's "For the Workforce, Drowning," and once again the sea of sweat and flesh began to boil.
The band immediately careened into two more songs from War "Between Rupture and Rapture" and "Division St." Rickly leaned down into the crowd and everyone screamed the words together, while guitarist Tom Keeley whirled around and hoisted his instrument aloft and the rest of the band, thrashing wildly about the stage, eschewed the nuances of its recordings for an almighty pummel.
I held my camera aloft, praying for its survival, and snapped a few shots, and I didn't see it coming: A crowd-surfer's boot clocked me in the head. I'd had enough. Woozy from the blow and the intense heat, I pushed toward an exit about 10 feet away and pulled myself up some stairs. Finding myself in a small garden behind the church, I looked up to see Fall of Troy bassist Ene sitting alone on a wrought iron bench, talking on his cell phone and looking at me curiously as I staggered past him toward some bushes, where I dry heaved for a couple minutes and gulped in the cool night air.
Standing there, drained, I could hear Thursday tearing through colossal renditions of "Paris in Flames" and "Understanding in a Car Crash" (from 2001's Full Collapse) and a few songs from Common Existence ("Circuits of Fever" and "Friends in the Armed Forces"), each met with a roar of approval. If you could withstand the punishment, Thursday certainly provided rewards for the faithful.