Review Summary: Thrice settle into a sweet spot.
When we last left Thrice they had accomplished quite a lot with their quartet of elemental EPs, The Alchemy Index
. Though the programmatic nature of the album led some to call Thrice on cheesiness and artifice, the collection of EPs proved that Thrice were a truly special band and in fact worthy of the grandiose labels attributed to them, my favorite being "the Radiohead of heavy music." First, though clearly indebted to the punk, hardcore, and even metal that defined their sound for four LPs, Thrice were no longer genre-bound. Fire
continued along the path Vheissu
had paved. Water
was a masterpiece of texture and moodiness that sounded like it came from a Scandinavian band with unpronounceable album names. Air
experimented by taking traditional post-hardcore ideas and warping them with production techniques, and Earth
stripped Thrice of that characteristic punk energy and metallic technicality to create something entirely out of the box, yet pleasantly conventional. Second and maybe most importantly, Thrice could self-produce. Their earlier albums were kept tight and youthful thanks to Brian McTernan, but as Thrice's sound matured and evolved so did their requisites for a producer. Steve Osborne, traditionally a pop producer, was in the studio as Thrice changed their sound with Vheissu
, and a lot of their makeover felt like it could be attributed to Osborne's hand on the reverb knob. The Alchemy Index
featured Teppei taking over as primary producer, with everybody lending a hand. The result of this completely insulated process was Thrice's most accomplished production to date, showcasing both breadth and detail. Though it was hard to back The Alchemy Index
as Thrice's best collection of tunes when considering the concise and ecstatic beauty of The Illusion of Safety
or the pensive but powerful soul of Vheissu
, it was certainly their most accomplished, and hinted at yet-to-be-written magnum opus that blended all of the different elements and styles.
Thrice's follow-up album, Beggars
, whose release feels curiously sudden next to the prolonged incubation period and delayed release date of the The Alchemy Index
, is certainly a blend of all of Thrice's influences and styles. However, Beggars
is an anti-magnum opus. They went into the studio geared to create an album that came together as naturally as possible, emphasizing wonderfully nebulous abstract nouns like "feel" and "groove." Instead of taking a step towards being even more about premise and concepts, Thrice decided to undercut expectations and make an album that is pleasantly geared towards satisfying themselves. In practice, this tactic yields songs that sound like they'd fit in with the Air
disc of The Alchemy Index
, the disc that was the most familiar and least challenging to absorb for fans of Thrice's previous albums. Air
contained some of Thrice's best songs to date (see "Broken Lungs," "Daedalus," and "Silver Wings"). Among the gems were some duds, or at least some very questionable musical decisions. The production on "The Sky Is Falling" muddled the efficacy of an otherwise interesting albeit weird post-hardcore track. "A Song for Milly Michaelson" was enjoyable but tedious and flat at five minutes. Beggars
as an album plays exactly like that: sort of amazing, but sort of unsettling and slightly missing the mark.
As a pretty diehard Thrice fan, finding the origin of the bad taste in my mouth was a difficult and painful journey that required drilling through the bedrock of my musical tastes and values from age fifteen onwards (ref: Vheissu review). At the end of the day, it's impossible to trace Beggars
's failings to any one high-level problem, but when breaking down the album to an almost microscopic level, tiny musical doppelgangers begin to appear. Thrice has always been a band that, even while obviously influenced by the music of artists they revere, have always found a way to perfectly recontextualize and convolute the ideas that inspire them. Little musical moments on Beggars
that are uncanny to ones found on other Thrice albums and those of Thrice's "recommended listening" make Beggars
feel more than than Thrice, and as a result somehow less singular and individualistic than any album before it. The album begins in the hands of Eddie, who's love of DC-inspired post-hardcore bands like No Knife and Frodus (who lent Thrice "The Earth Isn't Humming" for the Earth
disc last year) defines the polyrhythms of "All the World Is Mad" and might as well be a B-side for And We Washed Out Weapons in the Sea
. The background lead-in vocals on "The Great Exchange" (they first enter at 0:30) are just an inverted version of the same melodic cell that begins the outro vocals of Radiohead's "Nude" (they first enter at 3:10). The microtonal inflections of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" (an Ursus Veritas favorite) colors Dustin's vocals on word "circles" in the first verse of the track "Circles." Most confounding is what may be a guest appearance by or a careful sampling of Coldplay's Chris Martin at 2:45 into "In Exile." The yearning but uplifting vocals that end the song are effectively the same as those on "Viva la Vida." Even more suspect are instances in which Thrice pay homage to themselves. The ominous, whalesong feedback that is delicately applied to the verses of "Wood & Wire" is the same as the delayed guitar that gives the intro of "Of Dust and Nations" its ethereal pull. Lyrical retreads also make guest appearances. "They'll take flight when the earth starts to shake," shakily balances between being cleverly self-referential and a clichéd rehashing. Comparing the aesthetic down to the opening lyrics of "Wood & Wire" ("Fourteen years behind these bars") with those of "The Earth Will Shake" ("We dream of ways to break these iron bars") also teeters. These musical doppelgangers, though certainly unfortunate and not limited to the examples listed here, are not founded in laziness, plagiarism, idolatry, hubris, or any other negative trait. They are generally awesome ideas that have the sad fate of being leftovers - little fossils of what makes Thrice the great band they are. They are still enjoyable and emotionally relevant, but they dull Thrice's uniqueness just enough to make Beggars
feel like a missed opportunity.
Despite this rusting effect, listeners have reason to rejoice; Thrice mostly offsets the considerable weight of these moments by being pretty much the best fuc
king band in the world. The softer songs on the album, namely "Circles," "Wood & Wire," and "The Great Exchange," are haunting and sad in a way Thrice has never captured before. The opening two tracks, "All the World Is Mad" and "The Weight" make good on the promises of the Air
disc by presenting post-hardcore tracks that walk far off the beaten path but never get lost. Even the album's worst song, "Doublespeak," pulls out of the doldrums of its bridge with an inspired, swinging outro that converts the previously repetitive and boring piano part into an anthemic rally cry. Instrumentally, the band has never been better. Riley really runs with the idea of making the album more groove-focused and his playing really transforms Thrice's sound and feel. Eddie's basslines, most notably in "Doublespeak," produce stunning complements to Riley's drumming, or bulk themselves up with satisfying distortion and aggressive counterhythms. Teppei further expands in his role as a multi-instrumentalist. Dustin's performance on the title-track, "Beggars," moves from soulful bluesy crooning to his characteristic pitched shouting that gives the song its smoldering power, and is possibly the greatest achievement of his career (which I had the foolish privilege of claiming about both the entire Air
disc last year and "Of Dust and Nations" four years ago).
is at once familiar and alienating. Thrice wear their influences on their collective sleeve like never before, but this transparency sullies their uniqueness. Thrice's commitment to stripping their music of artifice is refreshing and welcome after the heaving monster that was The Alchemy Index
, but they take it a step too far by falling into a complacent territory that doesn't truly push their music to new heights, either intellectual or emotional. Beggars
is the sound of a band settling, not for lower standards, but rather settling into a sweet spot that neither attempts to leap past the achievements of previous albums nor away from what has made them so great for so long.