Review Summary: Thrice releases Kid A and the Infinite Sadness.
Thrice - The Alchemy Index: Volumes I & II - Fire & Water
When reviewing an album, one important criterion to consider is an album's completeness or how well it works as a whole and not just as a collection of songs. I can think of countless albums that work more as song collections than as albums (e.g. anything by Alkaline Trio or Face to Face). Similarly, I can think of many albums that may not have songs that stand out individually but are albums who's overarching concept or large-scale structure impress more than any individual tracks do (e.g. Circle Takes the Square's As the Roots Undo
). With that in mind, imagine the difficulty in approaching the notion of "completeness" when looking at Thrice's The Alchemy Index
. In one hand, it's a concept album; each EP is a collection of six songs meant to abstractly embody one of the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air. The collection as a whole is supposed to span vastly different content all under the unifying theme of "elements." On the other hand though, each individual EP is more like a song cycle. The songs are concise and balanced. You don't get a song that is four minutes of ambient noise and a repeated guitar motif followed by another track that is twelve minutes of expansive prog. In short, this is not the new Mars Volta or Coheed and Cambria album. However, in The Alchemy Index
, there seems to be a definite intersection between the lofty world of concepts and completeness, and the more straight-forward world of songwriting. As a result, instead of looking at The Alchemy Index
as four EPs, it may be more helpful to think of it as having the structure of a song cycle or an orchestral suite. Vivaldi's violin concertos, the Four Seasons
, have an oddly similar premise. Holst's The Planets
, which gives an orchestral movement to each planet in the solar system, also has a similar architectural design. So, in conclusion to all of this vacillating, I'm going to be evaluating the completeness of this release in terms of how well it fulfills its promise of being a song cycle as much as how good the individual songs are. Obviously this review will be in two parts, as the third and fourth volumes won't be released until Spring 2008. For those of you who don't want the in-depth look at each disc just skip down to the "Conclusions" paragraph to pick up my overall remarks.
Volume I: Fire
Of the four elements that The Alchemy Index
incorporates, Fire's musical manifestation may be the easiest to grasp. Fire implies aggression, recklessness, dissonance, destruction, heaviness, and distortion, and that comes across loud and clear while listening to the Fire disc. However, writing music just for the sake of those description adjectives could lead to some problems (http://tinyurl.com/yts7ky); one could perfectly represent fire and still create a terrible album. In the trailer video for the Fire disc, Thrice themselves acknowledged the difficulty in writing heavy music that will appear in a collection that includes decidedly unheavy music (e.g. "Digital Sea") especially after defining their career by producing interesting, heavy music.
Aesthetically, the Fire disc is a further evolution of the styles explored on Vheissu
on songs like "Hold Fast Hope," "The Earth Will Shake," and "Like Moths to Flame." Thrice have kept a lot of their Isis, Pelican, and Deftones influences as heard in the crushing riffing of the "Firebreather" reprise and the harmonically rich introduction to "Burn the Fleet." However, Thrice seem to be pushing their heaviness into even more abstruse territory. "The Messenger" and "Backdraft" are straight up weird in their electronics and melodic chromaticisms. I'd liken their initial tones to those found on some Prodigy songs, which is really out of character for Thrice, but not at all bad. The disc isn't just a juxtaposition of dropped-tuning chugging and weird electronic crackling though. Thrice really run the gamut in terms of the sounds they use. I'll talk about the production later, but just from a songwriting perspective, it's nice to hear a ridiculous amount of diversity. The song "Firebreather" moves from a brutally heavy main riff, to a very dry and simple verse, through a fairly swinging and uplifting chorus, ultimately ending up on the epic and almost sweet outro, which even features choral singing. In general, the Fire disc is at a benefit from the diversity it produces. However, there are also some questionable aspects. In crafting the more brittle sounding verses to accompany the huge choruses, Thrice tend to use a lot of predictable harmonic gestures. it's sort of obvious to use the slinky harmonic minor scale, who's two minor seconds separated by an augmented second are often used to lend a certain evil or incendiary tone. The dissonance created by the open notes in the verse of "Backdraft" mixed with Dustin's distorted vocals are more cheesy than effective. The chorus chord progression on "The Messenger" is sort of old news in its use of harmonic minor. It may have even been employed similarly in an As Cities Burn song. However, other than a few suspect moments, these songs shred pretty hard. I love the utter, unrelenting heaviness of "The Flame Deluge." It literally gives the listener a complete deluge of the heaviness cultivated on the fire disc. After a somewhat lulling introduction, the song just crushes for its remaining 2:47. As I mentioned earlier, the introduction to "Burn the Fleet" is amazingly rich. Thrice have really done a good job with incorporating b6 scale degrees into their major chords, giving their songs a sweeping, Romantic feel despite whatever heaviness Thrice is also imposing on the listener. It ensures that no matter how unwieldy the purely fire qualities of the disc are, Thrice don't lose their sense of melody or harmony. They're not just creating chugging riffs, but are actually succeeding at creating chugging riffs that sing.
A lot of the success in the songwriting department can be pinned on tasteful decisions at the instrumental level. Teppei and Dustin have really outdone themselves in terms of pushing their Vheissu
techniques to the next level. Thrice detune their guitars a lot, and also use a variety of different tunings. Teppei and Dustin seem to be tapping into the idiosyncratic sounds of such techniques. The slightly wavering slides on their power chords give a lot of body and singularity to even their most mundane chord progressions (think of the verse riffing on "The Arsonist"). This technique was hinted at on Vheissu
but has been mastered here. Also, the heaviest riffs also seem to be the most inventive. The main riff on "Firebreather" has an asymmetric repetition pattern with accents on 1 and beats 3, 4, & 5 that create an unusual and deep groove. When you have your most profound sense of feel and time on the heaviest riff on the album, I'm definitely impressed. The only song I feel is sold short in terms of the guitar performances is on that one riff that permeates "The Arsonist," which feels like a rehashing of the main riff from "Blood Clots and Black Holes." The bass performance is also pretty awesome though it is most effective in the exact opposite way as the guitars. While the guitars are their best when the music is more angular and firey, the bass excels in those quiet corners of the disc. The fairly sparse verses of "Firebreather" are made by the bass playing the main riff of the song. The bass on the chorus and turnarounds of "Burn the Fleet" is really tasteful and memorable. The one moment that bass absolutely takes over though is on a heavy moment in the chorus of "The Messenger" who's more predictable chord progression would be boring if it weren't for the pulsating bass underneath it all. The instrument that I'm most impressed with though is the drums. The Fire disc is rhythmically very challenging, though you wouldn't really know it because of Riley's massively tasteful playing. Back in the days of The Artist in the Ambulance
, on a song like "Silhouette," it was really easy to tell when the song was changing its time signature because the changes were so jutting. The quiet 7/8 part where Dustin sing "Like hydrogen..." is beautiful, but the drum pattern is really just a 6/8 pattern with an extra snare hit at the end. On the Fire disc, there is no such awkwardness or simplicity of design. All of the varying time signatures and offbeat accents (e.g. that "Firebreather" riff) are inventive and seamless. My commentary on the drumming doesn't even end with Riley as there is some really nice programmed drumming present as well. The Prodigy-esque drumming on "The Messenger," while weird, is captivating. Dustin's vocals also shred. There are some suspect moments like the verses of "Backdraft" and the bridge of "The Arsonist" but other than that, I couldn't be happier with the passion Dustin brought to this album. His scream is mature and manly and dominates the surface of this disc. If there is any fault with his performance, it's that it's somewhat one-dimensional as he screams most of the album, but there are moments that show off his singing prowess "Burn the Fleet" being the best example. Lastly, in terms of the technicals of this album, the production is stunning. As I mentioned earlier, the sounds in the songwriting are varied and diverse. This variety though is complemented wonderfully by the variety in the production. From the ominous air raid sirens of the introduction of "Firebreather" to the epic synth tones in "The Flame Deluge," the Fire disc is packed with a variety of evocative tones. Considering the more mundane aspects of the tracks "The Messenger" and "The Arsonist," it's nice that they are somewhat redeemed on the virtue of the production alone. "The Messenger" greatly benefits from its electronic flourishes and "The Arsonist"'s bridge uses really cool distortion and chorus effects a la the guitar riff in "The Shape of Punk to Come" by Refused to bring back life into the song before the crushing outro.
In terms of achieving the sound of the fire element, I'd have to say Thrice has succeeded, though I have some gripes. The production really helps. To use firey diction, the tones are absolutely incendiary. The heavy parts are aflame. Even the quieter verses are brittle and dry like tinder waiting to burn. The music is heavy, aggressive, and intense, all without trying too hard. However, I can't get over some of the predictable harmonic gestures like the obvious harmonic minor chorus of "The Messenger" or Dustin's minor second quaverings in his quiet vocals. In fact, when I first listened to the disc, I didn't really like it. I focused a lot on the weirdness and the gripes I still have with the disc. But, as I listened to it more I got a better sense of the newer style Thrice was crafting. It seems like Thrice were acute to the issues of creating a heavy album inspired by fire and deftly managed most of the issues surrounding such pitfalls. However, a few moments slipped through the cracks to the detriment of this disc. As a collection of songs, there are some truly killer tracks though there are also two duds ("The Messenger" and "The Arsonist"). Overall though, this disc is a very successful manifestation of the fire element.
Recommended Tracks: The Flame Deluge, Burn the Fleet, Firebreather
Volume II - Water
The Water disc was certainly chosen as the best contrast to the obvious fireworks of the Fire disc. Other than the obvious antithesis that exists in nature, Water is more sedate, pensive, and lush, unlike the brittle intensity of Fire. Fire's most intense moment, "The Flame Deluge," is the last thing the listener gets before getting plunged into "Digital Sea," a song that begins with a melody that is unlike any heard thus far. Its electronics bubble, the drums are subdued, and the vocals are highly doctored with echo and reverb.
In Thrice's preview for this disc, they mentioned that there is a certain coldness to the compositions. This coldness is first apparent in the production. Everything on this disc feels like it's covered with a film or a filter that diminishes the intensity or immediacy of any given instrument. This effect doesn't mean that the disc is void of emotion but more than the disc isn't emotional overt. It's like reading a first person narrative with an unreliable narrator. Most of the truly interesting content is under the surface, which is an unusual sensation when listening to music, especially when listening to a band that used to write songs with very heart-on-sleeve lyrics like "I want to take the bullet / The one aimed straight for your heart." This notion of having the content be beneath the surface is fitting for the Water disc, who's very premise suggests submersion. I feel like in terms of executing this disc, some of the ideas are carried over from Vheissu
. Keeping with Thrice's fascination with post-metal bands like Isis and Mastodon, both of whom have released water-themed albums (Oceanic
contained a lot of oceanic images. "Atlantic," "Red Sky," and "Between the End and Where We Lie," all used the notion of water in the lyrics, or were already crafting the sound that would become that of the Water disc. To give a sense of the way this disc sounds, think of those three tracks from Vheissu
plus influences from Sigur Ros, Isis, Radiohead, Jaga Jazzist, Team Sleep, and most dramatically, Clint Mansell. In fact, this water disc sounds like a mix of Radiohead's Kid A
and The Fountain OST
, which is really a wonderful thing. The album is much less song-driven than the Fire disc. Even songs that have verse-chorus-verse structures like "Open Water" seem to defy such categorization by evolving very slowly and softly. Other songs like "Night Diving" subscribe to a completely post-rock formula building to a big crescendo off of an initial, simple motif. Listening to most of the Water disc is like watching something profoundly beautiful unfold in slow motion or underwater (oh wow duh). In that sense, the sound Thrice has crafted on this album is fairly effective at evoking the element in question. My only concern is that the sound created on this album could have just as easily passed for the sound of the Air disc. The tones are very ethereal. The echo and reverb on everything connotes floating in air as much as it does floating underwater so it's hard to exclusively call this a liquid sound.
Moving beyond the aesthetic and conceptual concerns of the disc and towards the songs, I'm really happy. Surprisingly, "Digital Sea" is a pretty bad song by Thrice standards. The vocals are campy and overproduced and the electronics are a little too heavy. They sound faux-futuristic as much as they sound like watery tones. I'm a fan of the chorus but the verses are not interesting at all. The outro is painfully repetitive with the ping pong vocals that deteriorate as the song concludes. Other than that though, this is a beautiful disc. "Night Diving" would have to be the highlight, as it incorporates the soft sounds of synthesizer, chimes, and what sounds like a glockenspiel with the denser and heavier sounds of the distorted guitar and bass. In fact, "Night Diving" is the best song Isis never wrote. The other tracks hold their weight as well. "The Whaler" features a wonderful vocal performance from Dustin and a really cool drum pattern that consistently brushes up against the warmer tones of the synth. "Open Water" plays like the successful version of "Digital Sea;" its electronics are never cheesy or awkward and really contribute to the sense of being underwater and the chorus is wonderful, if a little too uplifting. "Lost Continent" has the most compelling production on the whole album, its ambient tones working perfectly with the piano and guitar. As a song too, it is beautiful, invoking flares of soulful R&B in the vocals while simultaneously using demure Radiohead-esque piano playing. The disc ends sleepily on "Kings of the Main," who's reverby drums carry the song. Overall, the songwriting is evocative and meticulous.
The beauty of the songwriting is also punctuated by the production. As I mentioned earlier, there is a layer atop the whole disc that sets the underwater mood of the disc. Beyond that though, every corner of the disc has some thoughtful effect or tone applied to it. "Night Diving" at 2:32 features awesome echoing guitar that continues as a background accompaniment for around half a minute. "The Whaler" has a really subtle doubling of the vocals in a mixed down synthesizer that gives an artificial body and echo to the vocals. Every single instrumental part on this album is engineered, recorded, and mixed beautifully. In terms of the individual instrumental performances, it's hard to get excited about a riff or a drum pattern as much as one can on the Fire disc. Here, the gems are the tones, moods, and instrumentation. A synthesized vocal part in a background might not be as technically scintillating as the "Firebreather" riff, but it can be equally effective at creating the tone of the element as well as propelling the song forward. On the water disc, I'm particularly impressed with the arrangements. Despite being dark and dense, this disc never has too many instruments playing at any one time. Instead there are layers of effects and ambient noise to flesh out the soundscape of the Water disc. A lot of this effect is generated by the synthesizer, which I'm assuming is being manipulated by Teppei. The only instrumental performance I can really pinpoint is Dustin's because the vocals are not replaced by a piano like the guitar and bass are on a track like "The Whaler" or "Kings Upon the Main." The Water disc features Dustin at his most wistful and sad. There is a constant sense of yearning in his voice that tugs the tracks along. They all feel like slow burners that are motivated by Dustin's vocal performance. He manages to be willful and persuasive without any effort. His voice literally floats. That mixed with the immaculate production and the slow, yet beautiful songwriting yields an ace disc.
Ultimately, the Water disc is better than the Fire disc in the songwriting department ("Digital Sea" is the only dud). In terms of fulfilling the manifestation of the element in question, I'd say the Water disc is about the same as Fire. The electronics early on in the water album can feel a little overproduced but that is righted by the time "Open Water" has finished. Other than that, I am perfectly convinced that I'm floating in a massive, cold ocean (though troublingly I have no problem also believing I'm floating in the clouds of the Air disc). The arrangements, orchestration, and production are all absolutely stunning.
Recommended Tracks: Night Diving, Lost Continent, Kings Upon the Main
Thrice have released half of their Alchemy Index
project. In general, the first half of this project points to success. There are questionable aspects to both discs, but in general the cons are vastly outweighed by the pros. The Fire disc is a great exploration of the heavier moments on Vheissu
. The album is explosive and intense, with Dustin ripping his vocal cords to pieces while the rest of the band unleashes their heaviest material yet. Songs like "The Flame Deluge" act as the most brutal work Thrice has ever created. Songs like "The Messenger" and "Backdrift" are surprisingly the weirdest, blending together electronic influences into heavy, harmonic minor chord progressions. The Water disc, excepting its opening track, is nearly flawless. Interestingly, it also continues a strand that was started on Vheissu
's slower, more pensive tracks like "Atlantic." It's a collection of beautiful and wistful songs that all have lush and stunning arrangements. The Water disc feels exactly like it was recorded underwater. As a collection of songs, this album is amazing for nine out of the twelve tracks. As a concept album, it's halfway to becoming an amazing cycle. There are a few flaws and the second half of the collection to worry about, but so far, Thrice has produced another stunner.