Review Summary: Thrice continue their experimental expansion and craft an impressive first entry in a powerful concept-driven project.
Thrice are heading in a direction that has claimed the lives of many promising rock bands. By eschewing commercial success in favor of artistic expression, they may be digging their own graves, but rarely has that process sounded so sweet.
The Orange County, California quartet are taking a big risk by releasing what can only be described as half of a full-fledged prog-rock album. “The Alchemy Index” is a four-EP concept album that revolves around the four classical elements: fire, water, earth and air. Each disc contains six songs that sonically and thematically revolve around one of the four elements. The first half, “The Alchemy Index Volumes I & II: Fire & Water,” is available now. The other half, the earth and air discs, will be released in April of 2008.
2005’s “Vheissu” hinted that Thrice were shedding their post-hardcore roots and moving into uncharted territory. That record was met with positive reviews, but slower album sales than either 2002’s “The Illusion of Safety” or 2003’s “The Artist in the Ambulance.” “Vheissu” saw Thrice create more expansive instrumentation and song-structures than any of their previous work.
The progressive leanings of “Vheissu” are expanded upon, and then some, on the first two discs of “The Alchemy Index.” The fire disc is furious and intense. It opens with the brutal guitar-sludge and dark atmospheres of “Firebreather” before launching into the manic-electronica-meets-hardcore of “The Messenger.” The rest of the disk experiments with several different sounds, all of them on fire (excuse the pun). From a paranoid, frightening comparison of a jilted lover to a room without oxygen in a house fire, waiting to explode (“Backdraft”) to a stately rumination on the futility and hatred of war (“The Flame Deluge”) that is both beautiful and devastating, the fire disk shows Thrice’s versatility. Frontman Dustin Kensrue shines as he combines beautiful melodies with all the rage and fury fire can project in throat-shredding screams.
The water disc is, understandably so, the complete opposite of the fire disc. The manic fury of the fire disc gives way to the cold, heavy understatement of water. As impressive as the fire half is, Thrice really shine on the six water tracks. The disc begins with “Digital Sea.” A churning electronic beat propels Kensrue’s breathy vocals. The whole disc feels organic and alive, but there is a coldness here that feels like the ocean at night: alive, yet dark and forbidding. Soaked in moody atmosphere and dripping with electronic sounds, the water disc is a huge departure from Thrice’s back-catalog. The rippling electronic undercurrent of “The Whaler” tugs the track towards its beautiful climax of vocal harmonies that lead into the dirge-like closer, “Kings Upon the Main.” If you listen to the final track closely, you can see the darkening sky and rolling swells of the growing ocean storm Kensrue’s lyrics describe.
“The Alchemy Index Volumes I & II: Fire & Water” is a triumphant exploration of the elements. Thrice have set a lofty goal and reached it with ease by effortlessly capturing the brittle heat and intensity of fire, and the ethereal beauty and mystery of water, without ever becoming cheesy or going over-the-top. We can only count the days for the release of the second half of this project.
Though it may be commercial suicide for a successful young rock band to forget writing songs for the masses (Thrice never did much of this anyway) and focus on creating art, the results are more than enough to satisfy, if you’re willing to expand your definition of what music can be. Depending on what the second half of the project delivers, this may be a legitimate album-of-the-year contender.