Review Summary: Thrice meld their Alchemy into one album; the results are progressive, but also cohesive. A big step in a slightly different direction.
Punk. Post-hardcore. Experimental rock. The trusty "art rock." Thrice have pretty much been through the whole gauntlet, genre-wise. Yet they've never gotten the recognition of Radiohead, who've been through similar mutations, as well as getting slapped with the art rock tag (and those Pink Floyd comparisons: what the hell? Go listen to "Dogs," then anything by Radiohead). I wouldn't be so bold as to suggest that Thrice's sixth LP Beggars will change all that, but it further cements them in the niche they've created; namely, one of inventive, daring, intelligent rock. Perhaps their back catalog does them a disservice - whereas Radiohead get tamer as you move from Kid A on back, Thrice get rawer, more ferocious. The same people who'll pick up O.K. Computer after In Rainbows and be happy with it will likely be horrified at the shift from Beggars to The Artist in the Ambulance.
That youthful force hasn't been lost, though; the solid-steel, ramping intensity of a track like "Paper Tigers" has been distilled into the slow-build, whiskey-soaked howl of "Beggars," possibly the album's highlight, and certainly among Thrice's best songs to date. It's simply the sound of a band maturing as songwriters and musicians. Admittedly, it'd be a stretch to connect a thrasher like "Under a Killing Moon" to anything off the new album because there's simply no analog. The Alchemy Index saw Thrice expunge the last of their bottom-heavy riffage for now. The hardest songs on here, tracks like “At the Last” or “Talking Through Glass,” are still miles from Thrice’s hardcore heyday. But here we get the fruits of Dustin Kensrue's earthy solo album combined with the taut-steel approach of Eddie Breckenridge on bass and his brother Riley on drums; the opener "All the World is Mad" rides on a stuttering drum and bass riff (in six, if I'm not mistaken, which I most likely am) and "At the Last" shifts from an old-school intro to a massive fuzz-bass verse. Sealing it all together is Kensrue's voice, which has picked up a pleasingly ragged, salty quality.
I'm not reviewing The Alchemy Index, but those four EPs admittedly foreshadowed much of this maturity, but in separate doses - technicality and brute force on the Fire EP, experimental and drone influences on Water, post-rock and indie on Air, and straight acoustic, jazzy and folky, on Earth. However, this is the first complete album involving, without any conceits, the new Thrice. Vheissu was quite the leap from Ambulance - it's a similar situation here. The guitars are a standout example; something like Vheissu's "The Earth Will Shake" thunders along on massive walls of distorted, low-tuned riffs, where as the playing on Beggars's heavier moments recalls that of Jonny Greenwood - lots of textural slides and scrapes, audible squeaking, and an overall punchier tone which cuts through the mix much better now, aided by what appears to be bits of live recording (snare rattle, studio chatter, and amp buzz being audible in a few intros, which if I’m not overextending, reminds me of Let it Be). The separate guitars of Teppei Teranishi and Kensrue are easily, clearly discernible.
"The Weight" is a clear nod to Ambulance's "Hoods on Peregrine," laced with a distinctive single-coil snap. "Circles" employs atmospheric cleans until the end, in which an echoey, fuzzed lead handily takes over melody duty. One thing Thrice have always abstained from is guitar soloing. I don't think there's been an album track since the first or second LP where lead guitarist Teranishi solos. Instead, they write leads which have all the qualities of sung melodies, which makes them great. A great solo may as well be a melody, because if there's none to be found, what is there to remember about it? The song's structure should warrant the solo, not the other way around. Brief digression; think of "Stairway to Heaven." Page doesn't solo till the end, and the solo provides a launching pad for the song's climax, in addition to being a melody of its own.
I'm not a lyrics man; I tend to put more stock in musical ability and creativity over the "depth" or "meaning" of the lyrics, which puts me in the mind to forgive ambiguity or even nonsense (yeah, I see you, Mars Volta) if it sounds good. But it is worth noting that Kensrue is a solid lyricist; that is to say, the words he is singing do not worsen the songs. "Doublespeak," apart from its title, sports an appealing Orwellian gloom, and "The Great Exchange" layers religious imagery with Kensrue's trusty nautical tropes. I'm a stickler for bands as bands, not as four guys in a room doing their own thing, and if the lyrics can enhance the mood they pass my incredibly lax test.
Thrice have become a surprisingly accessible band without compromising their own integrity. They're technical enough to please the metalheads, emotive and creative enough to snag the arty crowd, and hooky enough for everyone else. And with Beggars sitting on store shelves, there's really no better time to get on board. Just be sure to give the rest of their stuff a try; you might be surprised by a band that can layer a Rhodes over a bone-crushing breakdown.