Thrice - The Alchemy Index: Volumes III & IV - Air & Earth
When we last left Thrice (http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?reviewid=13824), the first part of their four EP collection, The Alchemy Index
, was subject to a wide range of criticism. Outside of Sputnikmusic, where the reception was generally favorable, the band was criticized for satisfying the premise of this project too literally. Prefix mag summed up the most negative aspects of the album succinctly by claiming, "Fire & Water
contains too much artifice to swallow." However, they also suggested that Thrice had "screamo contemporaries" and a "neo-classical ear for arrangement," so maybe their reduction of the first half of The Alchemy Index
is also drastically off the mark. Certainly Village Voice's longing for, "a bit of Pete Wentz's tune senseā"would've gone a long way," is slap to the face to everything Thrice has stood for over the years. For me at least, Fire & Water
was a natural expansion from the sounds cultivated on their previous LP, Vheissu
. The Fire
disc explored the post-metal heaviness of "The Earth Will Shake" in tracks like "Firebreather" and "The Flame Deluge," and the strange, brittle harmonies of "Like Moths to Flame" in tracks like "Backdraft" and "The Messenger." The Water
disc took Thrice's tendency towards soft, atmospheric songwriting ("Atlantic") and combined that with their interest in lush, wall-of-sound production. The two discs together felt like Deftones holding hands with Sigur Ros, but with an attention to technicality, angularity, and gorgeous, impassioned instrumental performances (vocals included) that gave the albums their distinctive Thrice aesthetic. To tackle the issues of the second half of The Alchemy Index
is to further refine characteristics of Vheissu
, and even Dustin Kensrue's solo album Please Come Home
Volume III - Air
Despite the wetness inherent saturating a soundscape with echo and reverb, the Water
disc manifested a bit off airiness as well. This trait led me to wonder how Thrice would create a aurally distinct Air
disc. Generating airy tones requires a lot of the same tactics, but maybe with a more sharp, gusting release of sustain and delay effects, so that the disc doesn't sound turgid with its wetness but rather lofted with its airiness. Thrice's manifestation of the air element is probably their most problematic of the collection, and the disc suffers from the discontinuity of the sound throughout, however many individual tracks blow everything else in this collection out of the water.
This trade off between individual songwriting and holistic coherence is first observed in the production. "A Song for Milly Michaelson" is a sparse track with a simple, repeated guitar line and soft vocals. In the background, there are subtle but noticeable gusts of wind that grow and combine beautifully with reverb-laden piano and drums as the song progresses towards its finale. This manifestation of air is admittedly simple, but effective, which is a good way to describe the overall songwriting at work. However, this song and version of air is coming off of "The Sky Is Falling" a track that indulges wildly in a variety of effects. The song begins on windy sounding feedback, hammered, echoing guitar riffs, and light synthesizer lines in the spirit of Coil, all over an active, angular drum beat. The effect is a little more sophisticated than just throwing in some wind samples and calling it a day, but when the synthesizer trills expressively and Dustin's highly distorted vocals come in, I wonder if too much effort was taken to create airy tones. The song, though enjoyable and capable of amazing moments, suffers because of its commitment to creating a uniquely challenging version of "air" that also happens to be at odds with the clearly established yet relatively mundane sound created for "Milly Michaelson." Thrice tends to succeed on tracks where they just let the songs be songs without trying to add sparseness to the tones or orchestration in order to achieve their desired effect. "Daedalus" feels immaculately airy and is really just a beautiful post-hardcore epic weened on the same teat as Hopesfall's best songs from Magnetic North
and A Types
but with a more plodding, building aesthetic. "Broken Lungs" too feels like a throwback to a more standard incarnation of Thrice but manages to capture "air" on the virtue of Dustin's gorgeous, resounding vocal performance. However, despite the natural beauty of these tracks, I have to tip my hat to "Silver Wings," which has the best production of any track I've ever heard. It blows everything by Deftones, Refused, Glassjaw, Radiohead, etc. out of the water with its lushness, attention to detail, and careful mixture of automated synth sounds and beautiful, organic vocal harmonies.
The instrumental performances deserve some attention as well. If it weren't for the impressiveness of Dustin's vocals on all of the discs I wouldn't hesitate to crown this Dustin's most sophisticated and emotionally profound vocal performance in a career made off of gruff yet surprisingly delicate vocals. "As the Crow Flies" almost has highly nuanced, microtonal implications as Dustin smears notes and rasps his voice, casting an unsure pall on the arpeggiated background and giving the song an uncanny tension. The antiphonal and harmonized vocals that layer the soundscape of "Silver Wings" are nothing short of amazing. On the more standard post-hardcore tracks, the vocals carry an unexpected depth. The pummeling crescendo of "Daedalus" from 4:12 onward is profoundly moving. This disc is really a feather in Dustin's cap. Even more impressive is that this performance doesn't upstage the other instrumentalists as well. Ed's moment in the sun is also the tail end of "Daedalus" where his repeated bass line propels the song's slow burning energy, allowing Dustin to take off and showing off Ed's penchant for crafting undulating Frodus-like bass lines. Teppei again is a jack of all trades, and this disc really puts the shredding that defined his guitarwork up until Vheissu
out to pasture. To hear glockenspiel and bell chimes against a post-hardcore backdrop as in "Broken Lungs" is a refreshing allocation of Teppei's charms as a musician (though don't forget that the guitar-work on that track is highly appealing as well). Riley is experimenting with drum tones and electronic drum kits. "Silver Wings," is a soft breakbeat mixed with a very naturalistic, clean drum sound. "A Song for Milly Michaelson" features drumming that is as patient and pointillistic as you'll find in any minimalist or jazz track though it certainly takes the back seat to Dustin's balladry. And despite these instrumental high points, Thrice now seems to transcend their instrumental roles. Air
along with Water
are discs that further push Thrice past the rock band mold that they grew up on.
Admittedly, the Air
disc is imbalanced. There is a lack of continuity in the sound, and some of the best tracks don't necessarily capture the essence of "air" as well as the more obviously designed tracks do. Ultimately though, between "Broken Lungs," "Daedalus," and "Silver Wings," Thrice have songs that feel like capstones for their career. They are careful balances of their post-hardcore past and their undetermined but fertile future. So while Air
isn't going to fulfill the critics' desire for less artifice and more smooth integration, it is a collection of wonderful music, on par with the nearly perfect Water
disc, though not as fluently and fluidly realized.
Volume IV - Earth
As a way of embodying earth, instead of busting out tribal drums, Thrice chose to veer off towards Americana folk and symphonic music, recording every track on acoustic instruments. In premise, the Earth
disc is Thrice's most divergent of the four discs. It even has more in common with Dustin's solo work than it does with anything Thrice has recorded before and during The Alchemy Index
. The end result is a tone that is certainly earthy, though in a distinct way. The Earth
disc feels like a hybrid of Bob Dylan, The National, Led Zeppelin, and most significantly, Murder by Death, artists that all have a definitively rustic, even grainy sound about them. And while having such a wild constraint as only using acoustic instrumentation seems like it could have tethered the disc's sound, Earth
probably best captures its corresponding element.
The story begins and ends somewhere with the two primary instruments chosen for this disc: the barroom style piano, a sound that is highly borrow from Murder by Death, though it works in different ways on this disc, and the acoustic guitar, an instrument that allows Thrice to invoke folk, singer-songwriter, and classic rock. These two shape the general character of the disc and are a platform from which the other instruments launch. On "Digging My Own Grave" the awesome woodwind lines and the snapping thumbs mix perfectly with Dustin's soulful ballad vocals because they all rest on top of the slightly drunken, slightly jazzy underlying piano progression. "Come All Ye Weary"'s rich, resonating sound that includes organ along with regular rock instruments is all supported by the lonely repeated acoustic guitar progression that marches the song along. The somber trumpet and woodwind melodies on "Child of Dust" are homophonic accompaniments to the simple, repeating piano backdrop. This disc, regardless of how complex it can be, has a meat-and-potatoes aesthetic, which is likable and almost quaint.
Even then, the complex moments aren't even all that complex. The bluesy shuffling guitar of "Moving Mountains" is just a series of hammers and pulls, coupled with arpeggios. If on the Air
discs, Thrice evolved past their need for rock instrumentation, then on Earth
, Thrice evolved past their need to exhibit their technical chops in the course of a song. Earth
is an exercise in simplicity from an instrumental perspective. However, Thrice do give themselves over to songwriting, orchestration, and production. For what Earth
lacks in dazzling riffs and asymmetric time signatures, it makes up for it with intelligent arranging. The aforementioned snapping and woodwind on "Digging My Own Grave" is in some ways more powerful than the scathing brutality of "The Flame Deluge." This ability to survive on brain without brawn (I'd argue that Thrice has always generally had both), makes Earth
a refreshing listen, especially in the scope of a highly artistic, lofty concept album.
However, there are some question marks on the Earth
disc. I'm all for covers, even on original LPs (Xiu Xiu has done some great covers), but Thrice adds little to Frodus' "The Earth Isn't Humming" other than their own acoustic flourish and Dustin's distinctive voice. The song is still great, but it was great in the same way when Frodus released it in 2001. Also, other than the fun factor and earnest vocals in "Moving Mountains," I feel like it's too much of a rehashing of classic blues ideas to fit in with a highly progressive concept album. It's a nice enough song but somewhat mundane and played out.
Overall, the Earth
disc fits its namesake element well. This album has a very organic and earthy, if also dry and simple aesthetic to it that works better than any of the other discs, with Fire
in a close second. I wish there was a little more to some of the more mundane or predictable tracks, but it's also nice to hear Thrice lay off a little bit and just play their instruments for the sake of solid songwriting.
I've argued that Thrice is to heavy music as Radiohead is to alternative music. After a few amazing but contented albums in their genre of choice, a hybrid of punk, metal, and hardcore, Thrice wrote Vheissu
, which was their OK Computer
made good on Thrice's old style, but expanded their sonic palette. The next logical step was to create their Kid A
, a work that transcended all traditional means of songwriting to craft a nearly immaculate listening experience. The Alchemy Index
though lofty enough, obviously isn't that. Thrice hasn't created a magnum opus but rather a sampler platter of what Thrice is capable of. What they set out to achieve on an overarching, conceptual level was to embody four different elements on four 6-song EPs. This goal was achieved with varying success. However, as an awesome consequence to that lofty project, listeners are left with an hour and half of great music, most of which is challenging and beautiful enough to lend The Alchemy Index
a little bit of that Kid A
spirit. It's not immaculate, but it certainly transcends.
At the very least, the unconventional make-up of this album is a look towards the future. The Fire
disc is a stratification of all of Thrice's heavy influences with even a bit of electronica. Water
is an achievement in atmosphere and beautiful songwriting. Air
is a masterpiece of production and gives the best few tracks from the entire collection. Earth
is a cool-down lap after the more developmental and progressive preceding discs, showing a Thrice that is willing to trade in all that has made them great during their niche period (1999-2004) in favor of pursuing a less challenging but equally viable sound. Thrice has completely reworked their sound since First Impressions
. In the future, can we expect to see these new elements recombined? Is The Alchemy Index
the necessary creative stretching required to generate a magnum opus? If nothing else, The Alchemy Index
is a worthwhile set of music. It's not perfectly efficacious but the content on this disc more than makes up for a few gauche moments of artifice.