Review Summary: Thrice's ambitious 2007 release, though often interesting, is too musically and conceptually stunted to be as successful as it thinks it can be.
The idea to create a concept album can bring about results that are either thematically oppressive or musically free. Or, sometimes, both, polarized as these two outcomes may appear. Maybe, thinking back on it, post-hardcore quartet Thrice has been a likely candidate for such an adventurous writing process, since their past two releases simmered with refreshingly broad musical palettes and equal parts melody and metal. Fans of the more experimental material, namely in 2005’s Vheissu, had their prayers answered when the band announced that they would begin work on a project that tied together the forces of fire, water, wind, and earth into four EP-length packages. It must have sounded promising to anyone following the band, as it initially seemed like Thrice was finally embracing the multiple styles they jam into a single album––or, sometimes, a single song––by splitting them apart and exploring them with the depth they deserve. After all, Thrice is no typical modern hardcore outfit, and have always owed as much to Metallica as they do to Refused as they do to the Cure. And hey, if Queensryche can blast out operatic epics about future societies gone mad and murder and mayhem, then surely Thrice could tackle a theme as open-ended as the elements.
And so, in late 2007, Thrice revealed the work that was looking more and more like a magnum opus. The entire project would come in two discs to be released half a year apart, with six songs devoted to each element; fire and water on disc one, air and earth disc two. In a promotional interview for the six songs on the fire portion, drummer Riley Breckinridge said, “We’ve been told by producers that we work with that usually your first inclination is your best, so we try to capitalize on that, listen to those first ideas.” Right there is the album’s primary hindrance. The Alchemy Index: Vols. I & II – Fire and Water, despite all its promise and the band’s growing reputation, is musically and thematically stunted. It is the sound of a band that let concept become not just a parameter, but a prison for their sound as well.
With its mid-tempo pace and optimistic chanting, is opening track “Firebreather” really the sound of its title’s scorching, destructive element? Maybe not, but it isn’t a bad start, either. The band chugs along with baritone guitars and amps turned up to eleven, promising us with each passing second a sound that will develop as the disc spins. However, once “The Messenger” ends almost as soon as it starts, one cannot help but feel that Thrice, on the heels of its bloated concept, gets creatively lazy. Just when the song starts to get interesting, just when it explodes into the fury that the past six minutes of album had been promising, the band pulls the plug. The band should not have mistaken its “first ideas” for the only ideas. Even frontman Dunstin Kensrue’s impressive and constantly improving roar, all Isis-like, earth shaking, straight from the gut, isn’t given time to shine before the band merely settles, contented with its thin, surface-y “first ideas”, and moves on. A shame, really, considering Thrice’s knack for crescendos on explosive Vheissu cuts like “For Miles”.
Only half of the fire side––“The Arsonist”, the moody “Backdraft”, and the theatrically brutal “The Flame Deluge”––really deliver with the goods (since a lifeless power-ballad like “Burn the Fleet” has no place in a collection like this), where conceptual control is balanced with wise musicality. But after six short songs, one can’t help but think, “Is that all?” The towering idea of fire is never fully explored. It’s as if the band members put their hands to the flame and decided it was too hot to plunge in any further. There’s very little closure to be had, but maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising given the band’s open interest in ever-masterful Thomas “scratch-thy-heads” Pynchon. So maybe the problem lies as much in quantity as it does quality. Six songs isn’t enough to hit the mark with the inferno that Thrice wishes to conjure.
The water section, which promises to explore the electronic influences that swept over Vheissu, is more successful. Using synthesizers, drum machines, and atmospheric guitars, Thrice is absolutely convincing in their ability to produce complexly-arranged sonic beauty. There is a careful precision to the interaction of live and computerized instrumentation in this shimmering and often dramatic half-dozen. However, the joys are initial, as Thrice once again seems to just settle and leaves their song structures simple. Each of the first three songs on the water section bear the same formula: engaging electronic intro, bouncing verse, sweeping chorus, repeat, as if the band was brave enough to take the first plunge underwater, but, after coming up for air, was too hesitant to journey back down into their depths. The voiceless “Night Diving” starts as an impressive aside into post-rock territory but unfortunately doesn’t go the whole nine yards and offer the sense of rising tension that the format requires.
The lyrical content, on the other hand, offers a different kind of surprise. It’s really quite baffling, as most of the time, the lyrics in this section are characterized by elegant storytelling and poetic grace––which is why it’s all the more cringe-inducing that Kensrue fills any gaps with banal stock phrases; you know the type: “between the devil and the deep blue sea” and “stare into the abyss” and “swallowed by the sea” and “the sea calls my name”. Taglines for adventure movies that only serve to remind listeners of a concept without really delving in. What are they doing mottling some otherwise lovely wording? Could it be another extension the band’s continuing satisfaction in, once more, say it with me this time, just settling? Thrice are still young. For a band this recent, they’ve done a lot of genre hopping, most of it successful. It’s no surprise that at some point their ambitions would get the best of them. It is also possible (and, really, when is it not?) that the record label played a hindering hand. It’s becoming more and more commonplace for a double album project to be split in two, released separately, and priced equally. If only the band had included all four elements in one two-disc release, the concept would have worked for rather than against them: the massive scope merely implied, let alone explored, by the band would have added a sense of grandiose achievement to the whole project. The flaws discussed previously might have been overshadowed or even ignored if Thrice had gone all the way and made the idea whole.
But then again, it’s easy to see why mine is an unpopular opinion. Thrice are, when it comes down to it, just a pretty darn likable bunch of guys. Kensrue’s earnestness has always been his best quality. Drummer Riley Breckinridge pounds through odd time signatures and shifting dynamics with professional competence. There’s enormous appeal in a band that’s so interested in variation, capable throughout its career of blazing hardcore, melodic command, and emotional honesty. And, in an era where only a handful of sounds dominate the airwaves, there’s no shame in Thrice trying. Their willingness to experiment sets them above their mainstream peers. Let’s just hope that next time around, Thrice goes all the way with their explorations and ties their many sounds together. That might be a few years, so at least in April we’ll get to see where they’ve gone with air and earth. There’s little doubt that their irrefutable energy will carry over well into further genre hopping. Ambition, especially in today’s musical climate, says a lot.