OK, time to change things up and actually review a record upon its release, rather than letting my thoughts languish for months due to a backlog of other still-yet-unwritten reviews. Every now and then I'm lucky enough to get to hear a highly anticipated album before its actual release date, and every now and then, I'm lucky enough to fall in love with an album almost immediately. Both have definitely been the case with Thrice's latest. And it's because of how much they've surprised me with the second half of their Alchemy Index one that I've chosen to cover it for my 500th review here at Epinions - a milestone that I'd normally reserve for a review of something classic that I've loved for at least a few years. Hey, sometimes you gotta strike while the inspiration's hot.
When we last left the post-hardcore California band Thrice, they had only revealed half of their elemental anthology to the world, and The Alchemy Index, Vols. I & II did not disappoint with its raging, seething collection of songs devoted to Fire, and the dark, moody companion disc devoted to Water. These were sounds that were not a total surprise to fans of the band's last "traditional" LP, Vheissu, which made excellent use of recording studio gadgetry and raw guitar power as it saw fit for each song. Separating these elements into such polar extremes seemed like a bit of a step back, but I looked forward to the latter half of the exercise, in which the band would figure out how best represent the elements Air and Earth. The answer, contained in The Alchemy Index, Vols. III & IV, is that they took a musical diversion that's almost completely unlike any of their past work. Stylistically speaking, I was kind of able to guess where they might go with both EPs, but I sure as heck didn't expect the results to be this consistent and powerful.
Put quite simply, Volumes III and IV are an improvement over the first two. That statement likely isn't going to sit well with long-standing Thrice fans who have justifiable reasons to prefer the "Fire" sound over everything else, but there are times when I've really got to respect a band for setting aside the style that they're most used to and still cranking out an excellent collection of songs. This is one of those times.
VOLUME III: AIR
When the project was first announced, I knew that the "Air" disc was going to be the most difficult of the four to predict. "Airy" songs would be something that you'd expect to be ambient, and probably very electronic, taking you into an aural fantasy-land. What would "Air" sound like that would differentiate it from "Water", except for perhaps the mood being lighter? Well, the answer is that Thrice brought back a bit of the rock factor, but allowed each song to be as loud or as soft as its mood seemed to dictate. There's an experimental nature to the construction of each - so you'll get quiet keyboard passages building to emotionally intense climaxes with rather addictive drum rhythms propelling them, and those songs will sit side-by-side with quiet pieces that have no percussion whatsoever. It's not as much of a technical geek-out as "Water" was, but I think it's the disc that contains the most surprises out of the four.
Are we fools and cowards all
To let them cover up their lies
Because we all watched the buildings fall
Now watch the scales fall from our eyes...
The opening track is a beautiful piece of work - a dramatic example of a slow, atmospheric build to a crushing climax. Chiming keyboards and wonderfully intricate percussion create a framework for Dustin Kensrue's mournful verses, which are a rare example of arriving late to the "September 11th tribute song" party and still having something worthwhile to say. His take appears to be that the evidence of the attacks, as presented to us, doesn't make sense, and that something's being covered up. I'm not a conspiracy theorist myself, but the band does a great job of creating an air of mystique to surround the unflinching questions that are being asked. The guitars begin to coalesce, getting thicker and heavier until Dustin has to resort to a (strikingly melodic) near-scream just to be heard over them - but even then, he effortlessly shifts between aggression and finesse in his delivery. It's an instant classic for the band that doesn't arrive at that status by conventional means.
The Sky Is Falling
My little girl is just a baby
And I'm scared that she won't make her teens
But my fear just fuels the hate machine...
This song gets swept up into a faster pace, with Riley Breckenridge clattering away on the drums, warm synth and/or bass tones glowing underneath, and an array of horns and handclaps and so forth to give the song a driving, jittery feel. Dustin's vocals here are quickly shouted, reminding me very much of Vheissu's "Image of the Invisible", but with a chorus that relies on a surprisingly light, airy blend of vocals to proclaim certain doom with the most addictive of melodies. It's a good follow-up to the 9/11 theme of the previous song, due to the indictment of "jingoists" and the recognition that anger tends to fuel a hateful response that isn't necessarily justified when one steps back at the big picture. The song brings back all-too-vivid memories of life in America circa late 2001/early 2002 - I know I was one of those who were guilty of thinking what the chorus states: "The sky is falling, and no one will care as long as it lands overseas." Wow. There are no words. I think this is my favorite song on either of the two discs.
A Song for Milly Michaelson
There's a way where there's a will
You know I got no need for stairs
So step out on the window sill
Fall with me into the air...
This is the first point where fans might get frustrated with the experimental approach, since there's little to this song other than a slowly picked figure on Teppei Teranishi's guitar, with the background ambiance swelling up very slowly over the course of five minutes, eventually allowing the percussion to bleed in and the mood to get more intense. It seems to be a simple story about a boy who can fly, who is asking his loved one to trust him, to come away with him on a flight of fancy. It's more of a fragment than a fully-realized song, which might mean it's overstaying its welcome due to the length, but I still enjoy it.
Now safely away, I let out a cry
That we'll make the mainland by noon
But Icarus climbs higher still in the sky
And maybe I've spoken too soon...
If you know anything about Greek mythology, then you know what this song's going to be all about. For those who don't, I'll give you the short version: Daedalus was a man who lived in captivity with his son Icarus on an island, and devised a way to paste wings onto both of their backs using bird feathers and wax, and fly to safety on the mainland. The only problem is that Icarus let his urge to show off get the best of him, and he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he plummeted to his death. Thrice aims to capture the lament of this devastated father in this epic ballad, which really gives everyone in the band the chance to stretch their wings (no pun intended) and perform with passion and sophistication. True to form, there's a subtle trickiness to the rhythm (which, for the most part, is a simple 6/8) that gets worked more and more as the drums and bass begin to swirl around each other, right around the point where panic sets in and Daedalus realizes the inevitable loss that he's about to experience. It then turns into a crushing cry of frustration, in which he screams, "Oh Gods! Why is this happening to me?", promising never to try and cheat gravity again if only he could have back the one thing he loves most... but it's too late. This one wins the silver medal in the category of "Best song I've ever heard that mentions Icarus"... Jars of Clay gets the gold, of course.
As the Crow Flies
Paste you in, a flannel coat, months fly by
Grow your bones, feathers, skin, Bible black by and by
You will spread your wings
One day, you'll fly over me...
Isn't it kind of cheating to have an acoustic song on this disc when that's supposed to be the domain of the "Earth" disc? Oh, well, this one's about birds, so I'll give it a pass. It's a gentle, hand-picked poem sung from the point of view of a crow to its baby, encouraging it to one day leave the nest and take flight. It almost feels incomplete, only running a little past two minutes, but it serves as an interesting coda to the song that came before it.
I've danced 'tween sunlit strands of lover's hair
Helped form the final words before you death
I pitied you and piled your sails with air
Gave blessing when you rose upon my breath...
One aspect of the first two volumes that I didn't fully appreciate upon first hearing them was the "sonnets" at the end of each disc - songs with identical lyrical structures that were worlds apart, musically speaking. Now that I've got a handle on that, it's amazing to see the symmetry between this third "sonnet" and the first two - this one floats on a bright bed of synthesized flutes and horns, with each lines of vocals overlapping the next, giving the whole thing a layered, cloudy, peaceful sensation. It's one of the most interesting from a lyrical perspective - this is the element air speaking to man, expressing how it's been cursed and taken for granted despite how much of a blessing every breath and every cool breeze on a summer afternoon has been. Without knowing the intent behind these songs, it would be easy to not notice that the angry, inflammatory screams of "The Flame Deluge" and the ocean's murky claim to sovereignty in "Kings Upon the Main" had anything in common with this song. It's those last two lines that give it away, standing on their own as they present the final rhyme, using pretty much the same melody as the closing lines of the aforementioned songs. I guess this one was the key that forced me to go back and re-evaluate the other two.
VOLUME IV: EARTH
And now we arrive at the final disc of the four, the one that was perhaps the easiest to predict the sound of. Obviously, "Earth" is an acoustic disc. And I was rather apprehensive about how they'd manage to pull this off - I've heard plenty of heavier rock bands strip down to nothing but an acoustic guitar, and some of them manage to retain the thick, heavy mood of their music in such sparse arrangements, while others just sound like they're doing the cliche coffeehouse thing. Thrice solves this problem by keeping the acoustic guitars darkly tuned and throwing in a slight amount of twang here and there, while surprisingly showing a little bit of jazz influence on a few piano-driven tracks. One song gets the full band treatment, with the traditional drum kit and electric guitars and all that, but still maintains the uncomplicated, "earthy" vibe that you'd expect not to work for a band so used to finding ways to tweak the sound of their instruments by recording them through this filter or that amp or resampling this vocal part or whatever. Even at its mellowest points, "Earth" doesn't get dull. It's a world-weary, but also heavily spiritual record that actually finds Dustin Kensrue being the most open about his Christian beliefs out of any of the four EPs (not that they were exactly hidden elsewhere, but some sentiments just play better in folk or blues songs). Don't take that to mean that this disc sounds like Dustin's solo "album", Please Come Home. It might make more sense to hear Thrice doing the acoustic thing if you're familiar with Dustin's solo work, but the difference in quality that the rest of his band brings to the table makes "Earth" an infinitely better listen.
I speak in many tongues of many men
Argue with angels, and I always win
But I don't know the first thing about love...
This track absolutely gets the final EP started off on the right foot, by waying of a rambling, slightly up-tempo number that is easily identifiable as a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 - the famous passage about the meaning of love often cited at Christian weddings. This ain't no wedding song, though - Dustin gives a different spin as he claims to be the person who can move mountains and reveal the answers to great mysteries and basically do all of these show-offy spiritual things, but who still doesn't have a clue what it actually means to love someone. It's amazing how malleable his voice is (and I noticed this on his solo album as well) - pair him up with more of an "earthy" style like this, and it reveals a bit of a folksy twang to his voice. Maybe I'm just making that up because of the whole atmosphere set by the acoustic guitar and what sounds like it might be a banjo. Either way, it sounds awesome.
Digging My Own Grave
I look but don't touch, it's really no big deal
I'll quit it when I feel I've seen enough
Oh, don't call it an affair, it's just a little fling
She doesn't mean a thing to me, I swear...
This one really threw me for a loop - I expected the folksky, acoustic guitar-driven stuff, but I certainly had no idea that Thrice would take such a jazzy, maudlin turn on a song that they would end up reminding me of Over the Rhine. It might be quite a stretch of the imagination to trade Dustin's husky voice for the sexy eccentricities of Karin Bergquist, but the tinkling of the piano, the sad blurting of horns, the slow, slightly drunken tempo in which the song is played, and the addition of female backing vocals certainly go a long way toward feeding my strange fantasy of a musical collaboration between the two groups. Of course, Thrice doesn't quite have the playful traits that Over the Rhine exhibits, choosing a rather somber approach to this confession of a man caught up in vice. You name it, all the stereotypical no-no's, this guy's right in the thick of them all, so addicted that he can't even see he's doing anything wrong. It's actually a bit too obvious, the way that they reference drinking and smoking and gambling and meaningless sex and make it easy to see that this guy's a total loser. I think it might have been more interesting if they had grappled with some less obvious vices - perfectionism, or being a workaholic, or false piety or whatever. Still, I have to give this song a good grade simply because I'm astonished that Thrice managed to pull off the style so well.
The Earth Isn't Humming
Fell into the sound in front of me
Unchanged by those around
Directionless, an open sea
We'll watch as time tumbles down...
Ever heard of an indie rock band called Frodus? Yeah, they're pretty obscure - apparently they were signed to Tooth & Nail Records for a short two-album tenure circa the late 90's, and they did the semi-heavy math rock thing. I can see why Thrice would totally be down with covering a math rock band (the complicated time signatures and all), but reinventing something like that acoustically takes some ingenuity. This would be the track where the band gets the most percussive "bang" out of their acoustic guitars and bass (and there's that banjo again!), hammering out the dark melody of an ominous song about the world being on the verge of a disaster that never seems to actually arrive. It's actually not that drastic of a change from the original song, structurally speaking (yes, I went to the trouble of hunting it down and listening to it), but it's hard to keep the same feel when you change a song's instrumentation so drastically. It's the song on "Earth" that most closely fits Thrice's usual approach to songwriting and their little musical intricacies (despite the fact that it's the only one they didn't right), and for my money, it's the best track on the EP.
The Lion and the Wolf
What a monstrous sight he makes, mocking man's best friend
Both the wolf and lion crave the same thing in the end...
This one's a haunting little piano waltz that tells a cautionary tale, wrapped up in a fable about two vicious animals who use different tactics to hunt down and kill the same prey. It almost feels like theres too little of the full band involved, and thus so drastically removed from what we know of Thrice that it seems out of place even in these surroundings (shoot, it almost sounds like it came from a school play). But then they bring in some ghostly background vocals, and I'm sold. And this one's rich with interpretive possibilities.
Come All You Weary
Come all you weary, who move through the earth
Who've been spurned at fine restaurants and kicked out of church
I've got a couple of loaves, so sit down at my feet
Lend me your ears, and we'll break bread and eat...
This might be Thrice's most straightforwardly Christian anthem out of any song I've ever heard them do. Interestingly, it's also the first radio single to be released from Volumes III & IV. That likely had more to do with the fact that it's the only song on "Earth" to use traditional rock instrumentation than the lyrical content - which, by the way, doesn't actually mention God or Jesus, but is pretty obviously based on the words of Jesus. Despite the simplicity, I really like it - they emphasize acceptance of the outcasts, the people who feel like the biggest losers in life, and who wouldn't expect to be accepted by a church full of people who claim to follow the guy. The extremely bluesy approach to making rock music is a major draw, too - an acoustic strum meets up with an irresistibly soulful electric guitar lead, creating a very open, full-sounding number that still has that sort of clatter and echo to it that makes it feel like they recorded it in a garage or something. (The way they set up the mics in their makeshift studio for this disc, that ain't far from the truth.) This is one song where their usual, more complex modern rock approach wouldnt have worked - you can get away with simplicity when you show a real grasp of what style of music will make that simple message resonate most powerfully.
Child of Dust
And though I only ever gave you love
Like every child, you've chosen to rebel
Uprooted flowers and filled the holes with blood
Ask for not whom they toll, the solemn bells...
The final sonnet isn't really a highlight for me, musically speaking - it's a slow piano dirge which finds the guys singing in unison in their most weary voices. The vocals kind of jump out because there isn't much else to it, but then I suppose that makes the lyrics the easiest to hear and understand out of any of the four (due to the respective screaming, muffling, and overlapping of the vocals in the Fire, Water, and Air sonnets). If these words are understood to be Earth's message to mankind, then I suppose mankind is sort of a prodigal son in this tale, taking treasure from the Earth and abusing it in return. The sonnet appears to end with the eerie promise that this "prodigal" will one day return to their point of origin, which I guess would be the grave. Understanding that point sheds a lot of light on what would otherwise sound like a total production blunder at the end - the final two lines of this poem are very drastically reduced in volume, as if Dustin's microphone suddenly died or something. The irony is that what they actually did here was to bury one of their microphones alive - they literally put it in a wooden box as it was recording, closed it, and began to bury it. You can hear the dirt being thrown on top of the box if you listen carefully - the effect is supposed to simulate burying the listener. MAJORLY CREEPY. Unfortunately, you can barely hear any of this without headphones, and even then, most of the last minute of the disc appears to be silence. I'll give them points for creativity, but it's hard to appreciate the results as a listener without knowing the backstory about the recording progress.
Now that I've had the chance to process all four discs, I can see a sort of unity to the disparate pieces that makes The Alchemy Index a rather brilliant project. It was hard to see the full scope of it when I only had the first two discs to process - my opinion of those has increased somewhat since then, but not quite to the point where I'd give it the five-star rating that I'm giving to these last two volumes. In truth, it's really more like the entire project hovers somewhere around four and a half stars, so I rounded the first project down and the second one up, because I like Volumes 3 & 4 a little bit more. You definitely shouldn't pick and choose between them, though. It's definitely worth your time to invest in the entire project.
Now, if Thrice can bring all of these elements back together for a regular-length studio album next time around, then I'm sure the sky will be the limit for this band! (And again, no pun intended. OK, so maybe I did intend that one.)
Broken Lungs $2
The Sky Is Falling $2
A Song for Milly Michaelson $1
As the Crow Flies $1
Silver Wings $1
Moving Mountains $1.50
Digging My Own Grave $1
The Earth Isn't Humming $1.50
The Lion and the Wolf $1
Come All You Weary $1.50
Child of Dust $.50
Dustin Kensrue: Lead vocals, guitars
Teppei Teranishi: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Eddie Breckenridge: Bass, keyboards, backing vocals
Riley Breckenridge: Drums, sampling