Review Summary: Vheissu is Thrice's O.K. Computer, but not their best album.
Thrice - Vheissu
The first time I ever listened to Thrice was at tennis camp when I was just turning 16. A friend there played me Identity Crisis
and the three-month old The Illusion of Safety
and considering the other album I was spinning that week, Strung Out's An American Paradox
, also combined pop punk, melodic hardcore, and metal riffing, I was primed to be hooked instantly by Thrice's appealing mix of those three style. That week sent me on a musical vision quest that has more or less defined my life for the past 6+ years. I won't lie, Thrice is my favorite band, and even before listening to Vheissu
I trusted them. I trusted that even if they decided it was time to cover Europe's "The Final Countdown," it was going to be pretty motherfuc
king triumphant. I trusted that even if the album comprised only Throbbing Gristle-like ambient noises for 45 minutes, it'd be the best industrial album of all time. So, I'm biased and have been for a long time now. And, even as my musical tastes spreads to all different genres, Thrice remains a linchpin for all music, and maybe my whole life. When I first heard The Illusion of Safety
on that glorious June day, I was immediately enthralled by their mix of technical proficiency, intellectual density, emotional lucidity, and straight up catchiness that define Thrice's mantra. And as most Thrice fans have noticed, though the genres and influences may change from album to album, that underlying definition of Thrice remains unyielding; no matter what music Thrice makes, it will maintain that amazing balance.
But despite my predisposition to love Thrice and feel I "understand" what they're doing as artists, I still yelled, "What the Fuc
k?" when I heard "Image of the Invisible." On The Artist in the Ambulance
, when a song moved into a midtempo range, it also provided really catchy, varied melodies and usually had some cool riff to keep the song pretty consistent with Thrice's older stuff. Vheissu
doesn't do that. It embraces all that is midtempo and melodically opaque, which produces a pretty beautiful result: epic Thrice songs. Imagine expanding all of Thrice's songs to four minutes at least. Then instead of letting them experiment with song structure and time signatures, have them experiment with atmosphere, melody and dynamics. This mix draws from the same pool of oddly melodic metal like Isis or Deftones but also brings out the modal mixture stylings of Radiohead. The music manages to be rather heavy and melodic simultaneously but also be experimental and catchy at the same time. That pretty much lines up with the way Thrice has always been, but this time the whole approach to being a musical chameleon is different. So different in fact that I fear I don't have the adequate musical vocabulary to take on the album as a whole, so, as a substitute, and though despite the fact that I hate track by track reviews, I'm going to have to succumb to my own simplicity/laziness. This album isn't as musically dense as previous efforts, but explores areas of music I haven't spent much time digesting before, so I need to take baby steps to accurately review this thing. And I mean, hell, I wrote a 30-page essay for The Artist in the Ambulance
so this thing should be child's play right?
Unfortunately, "Image of the Invisible"
begins the album rather mundanely. The main drum beat for the verses is pretty cool and if it were more varied and faster it would make a cool breakbeat. The song suffers from it's own design; it's an anthem. They have gang vocals for the choruses and it sounds pretty uplifting. I guess in summation it's "All That's Left: Redux," which means written in a minor key and a little slower paced. This song's simplicity does allow for some cool moments, but those moments are too brief in my mind. The bridge section that features just singing and guitar is awesome because it is a good rest from the consistently played verses and choruses, and it makes good use of a secondary dominant chord to give the bridge a rising feeling despite its quiet demeanor. The other part that benefits from the simplicity of the anthem design in the ending which sort of bangs out like the end of "Stare at the Sun" or "The Melting Point of Wax." It's a simple yet grand way to end a simple yet grand song.
For me, the album really begins on "Between the End and Where We Lie"
. The song's intro and first verse are a great mix of tones and textures. There's a great beat and a slightly creepy xylophone-esque synth line. Those are filled out when the verse comes in with vocals and a synthesized string section in the background, which almost pushes the electronics of the verse to cheesiness, but is mixed into the background for the sake of texture and not some dorky attempt at a sentimental string section sound. After the verse comes the chorus, which has some cool time signature action (alternating 7/8. 8/8), which yields an interesting flow. The guitar in this section sounds like it's blipping all over the place in a pretty cool way. It almost mimics the tone of a synthesizer, which fits in with the electronic elements from earlier in the song. After this chorus comes my favorite part of the song. Thrice reiterates the same melodic ideas of the first verse but they cut off the electronics and play as a band. It reminds me of the classical Variations on a Theme that Bach popularized. Thrice is especially clutch with the fast strummed guitar chords that have lots of passing tones to keep the melody that used to be in the xylophone synth running fluidly. Absolutely bank. From there the song repeats the verse and chorus again, with the final chorus pulling in the string section again for a solid crescendo.
Ever listened to the band Isis? "The Earth Will Shake"
proves that Thrice has. Instead of straight ripping off Isis though, they throw the elements they borrow through their own specially designed filter. The song has a few particular sections. The first section has the chain gang vocals, the second section has the same melody as the chain gang section but has a full band behind it and rhythmically segues into the next section that has the blatant Isis biting. Then the second section repeats and goes into a bridge. The bridge then goes into the second part again, which drops off into the first part again, which builds into the third part, which then spills out into the outro, which once again eats off of Isis' plate. That was probably hard to follow unless you're intimate with the song but I'll review it all more in depth in a moment. The overall song structure is A B C B D B A C E, which is sort of a sidewinder of a repeat, with B being the main theme, and sort of in between dynamically between A and C. The A section, or the chain gang vocal section, is pretty cool. The melody itself does draw directly from the style of a negro spiritual or work song. For atmospheric purposes there's even the percussion of spikes hitting and chain rubbing against each other, all put through a compression filter as if this is from some antique vinyl. Accompanying that further is a solitary guitar that is so trebly is sounds almost like a banjo. This section alone produces such a cool feel that the rest of the song would fail to live up to the standards set by the A section if Thrice hadn't masterfully organized the composition. Section B takes the same melody but then puts a band behind the melody instead of just the vocals, guitar and background noises. For me, this section is just a means to an end. It segues the two of the more exciting and poignant passages I've heard in a long time and meshes them together in a good segue. This B section does have some variety like the creepy background whistling on its second iteration and the awesome choir organ playing soulfully behind the third iteration, but in general, it's only there to set up the Isis-like section, which is so powerful it gives me shivers. Isis, and I guess Thrice now as well, absolutely throws down with mixing high pitched melodic chords with chugging rhythmic chords. I love the unique rhythm that will switch from the polar opposites of high-pitched and pretty to brutal and chugging. On top of that Dustin provides some of the more impassioned screams I've heard through his whole career. The whole moment is so perfectly executed that the song really tears maybe 7-8 new as
sholes every time I listen to it. It's most powerful moment is when it comes directly after the A section, which produces a huge dynamic disparity. The quiet and wistful chain gang section blasts directly into the brutally metallic section to produce such a powerful exit to the song that this song single-handedly makes this album for me and really was the turning point when I first listened to the whole thing all the way through. Genius.
If you spent any time at Thrice's website before Vheissu
came out you would have come across the awesome ambient intro synthesizer line for this track, "Atlantic"
. Mixed with the almost trip hop drumming, this song's opening and verse produce a chill and dreamy opening sequence. This song overall is actually pretty sleepy as far as Thrice songs go. For this album, Thrice wanted to have the ocean as the leitmotif, and the song "Atlantic" is pretty obviously the influence of that. The song also actually reflects the ocean as the very consistent beat produces a wavelike drone. In fact, this song would almost be boring if Thrice didn't vary the instrumentation. Present are chimes, synthesizer, tambourine, a mix of acoustic and electric guitar, and some obvious reverse echo pedal action. I can't help but feel that this track gets washed away hidden between "The Earth Will Shake" and "For Miles," which are too powerful and amazing songs, but this song has its own merit, though it is simpler. I enjoy hearing the opening synthesizer line repeated but on the chimes while the ambient background gets turned into a repeated chord on an acoustic guitar. I also like the slow moving left speaker guitar part juxtaposed with the fast 16th note guitar in the right speaker. Mixed with the slow moving beat and bass it keeps the chorus going. The song is rather beautiful but easy to space out to because of its hypnotic repetition.
On the other hand, "For Miles"
possesses an arresting hypnosis instead of a droning one. The song begins dramatically on arpeggiated chords played on a piano and that same progression develops into the verse, which features Dustin singing over the piano. I really love this song. It's one of those songs that doesn't hit one wrong note, even when introducing chromaticisms. On top of that everything is played very emphatically and emotively. But anyway, the verse then picks up with slow 6/8 beat. The verse continues to build with the addition of a well-sustained guitar that masks another cool hammer on/pull off guitar that hides in the right speaker. The verse shifts in a very amorphous fashion. It builds energy and parts really well and very subtly. The build is so well done that when the chorus bursts open it seems like a sudden crescendo. That chorus is truly amazing too. For me, it has this x-factor that drives in home and lets the chorus linger well longer in my memory than it should. I think this comes from the way the drums and the vocals sync in the beginning and then separate as Dustin sings faster and then the guitar line jumps in register all over the place, in a really interesting yet moving way. After this chorus section the song moves to a repetition of the latter part of the first verse, after all the instruments had come in. After that the bridge introduces some sweet background chant-style vocals that produce a very eerie vibe. The mix of the droning hammer guitar, which is now alone and very apparent, with these vocals produces a dream-like sequence that sets up the final crescendo. This final section is really intense. Dustin's screaming and Teppei's guitar, the tone of which reminds me of something Tom Morello would do, combine with a consistent 8th note drum pulse to blow away the listener with its power. A powerful ending to a song that beautifully mixes piano and modal mixture with an interesting post-hardcore song structure.
"Hold Fast Hope"
is obviously the most aggressive song on the album and is going to make some person on a message board somewhere say "It's like the 'Paper Tigers' of Vheissu
." Whatever. This song is pretty interesting. I listened to the Thrice podcast about this song and one of the main points they wanted to get across was that they had previous jumped around with time signatures but on this song they were really trying to get into a groove but in an interesting time signature. That signature happens to be 5/4 and from where I'm sitting, it sounds like they achieved that groove pretty decisively. The way Thrice seems to organize all of their 5/4 or 5/8 section are into 3 and 2 beats. That strategy produce a surprisingly good meter to headbang to. The song starts out at its most aggressive and revisits that same power later on, but most of the song is really just an exploration of that time signature at different dynamic levels. From the onset, it's very loud and harsh, but then it goes into a medium section that features Teppei's typical high pitched riffing mixed with a nice sung melody. This is effectively the chorus of the piece, which then bridges into another "verse," which is really the aggressive part again. After that repetition the song moves into its more quiet section. This, like many post-hardcore songs has a lot of arpeggiated chords and an overall more chill drumbeat. In addition there's an eerie ambient whining created by what sounds like single guitar notes held through an echo pedal. The effect is nice for creating a sleepier mood. This mood however is abruptly lifted away with a great turn towards aggression. This return has Dustin screaming with a well chosen china cymbal crashing in the background. The tinniness of the cymbal mixed with the meatiness of Dustin's scream sounds like a cool bring back towards the aggressive section, which has now been decorated with melodic background vocals that take the listener into the final chorus.
Up next is the woefully cheesy "Music Box"
. The song begins with the sound of a music box playing. This effect is really just corny instead of being artistic, which is what I'm assuming the intent was. The only cool thing about this intro is that the tone of the music box is used for the chimelike synth tone for the rest of the song. This synth is kept very consistently throughout the song, which is an interesting effect. I just wish they didn't have the moments where the music box plays solo. It just sounds like they're trying to hard. It makes me think of some made for TV movie where an older women is reminiscing about her childhood/dead child/whatever and wistfully listens to the music box's sound as a ballerina spins in place. It's just a little too much. But towards the actual music of the song; it's not bad but is definitely weaker than 90% of the rest of the album. The structure is the most boring of any song on the album other than "Image of the Invisible" and the headbang intro mixed with the quieter verses and the melodic yet heavy chorus just cloys a bit. It's the only time I've ever been pissed off at Thrice, because in reality this isn't Thrice. It's just Thrice making a hard rock song marginally more interesting and catchy at the same time. My one big compliment goes to the ascending power chords during the headbang section. I really like the variety to the typical four chords repeated over and over style chord progression that I feel most hard rock bands employ way to too much. This isn't a bad song at all, I'm just sort of a cruel reviewer as my standards for Thrice are incredibly high. And also this sounds like it could easily be a B-side track on Hopesfall's A Types
Thankfully, "Like Moths to Flame"
is a strong follow up to that cavity in the album that admittedly, I was way to harsh on. This song begins on a similar note to "For Miles" with a solitary piano line, but this quickly turns into a very heavy power chord fest. Normally, this would be unappealing but the intensity and simplicity of this section serves two purposes: firstly, it contrasts against the softer verses and secondly, it's simplicity allows for the vocal melody (when the section reappears as the chorus) to be much more interesting. Following on the first subject, the verses are soft, yes, but there's a pretty fast backdrop with the continuously strummed acoustic guitar, and the softly brushed snare drum roll. It's cool to hear the mix of fast-paced playing with soft and clean tones. It gives the verse a good pace but still distinctly separates this section from the booming intro/chorus. The chorus, as aforementioned, is pretty brutal in a way that would be meatheaded if it weren't for the beautiful melody on top. Granted, it's lifted straight out of Chino Moreno's (Deftones singer) playbook to produce an angsty yet melodically intriguing melody, but, this, along with the obvious Isis-like sections on "The Earth Will Shake" are the only straight up ripoffs. In the end let's just say that Thrice is really good at being Deftones. Pushing on there is a quieter ambient section that bridges the chorus into the next verse, which prompts another repeat of the chorus. After this straight repeat the song enters another bridge section where the intro's piano reenters, which once again leads into the heavy section. However this heavy section features a sequences of the chords to give a really dissonant and tense section. Dustin screams over the top of the chugging chords while there's a slight background minor second to perfect unison guitar bend happening, which really is a grinding nails against a chalkboard sound to further raise the intensity of this heavy, heavy crescendo. A crushing end to a pretty good song.
The next song, "Of Dust and Nations"
, is probably the most reminiscent of older Thrice songs. The most notable element of the older style is the faster pace that doesn't relent throughout the whole song. The second element that reminds me of the older Thrice is the faster guitar. There's a lot of hammering from low open notes to higher riffing notes that recalls moments on The Artist in the Ambulance
and The Illusion of Safety
. However, this song also produces some very different takes on the old Thrice. The guitar is heavily doctored by effects and something cool to produce sustain as well as a slight modulation and echo. Also, there's an incredible ambience during the whole song that wouldn't have existed anywhere before Vheissu
except maybe on the moaning introduction background on "All That's Left" or the weird dissonance of the bridge of "So Strange I Remember You." Thrice has essentially taken production value and their older style and combined them in a way that should be likeable even to the most nazi First Impressions
or Identity Crisis
fan. In fact, when I first heard this song, it was the only one on the album that made me pause and think, "this song truly rules." It's because it was the most familiar sounding that it's awesomeness was the most accessible. Oh, and as I'm relistening to this song now, I'd like to mention another thing that wouldn't have been able to exist before this album is Dustin's amazing falsetto vocals, and just his vocals in general. This song, along with "For Miles" holds Dustin's most impressive vocal performance throughout Thrice's career (this appraisal includes his screaming cover of "Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera). Overall, this song is rather amazing for its ability to span Thrice's whole career and feature the best elements of the old and new.
"Stand and Feel Your Worth"
feels like the band's powerful ending to the album. Indentity Crisis
had "Under Par" as the rather metallic and brutal second to last song, and "T&C" as the more melodic final song. The Illusion of Safety
had "To Awake and Avenge the Dead" before the poppier "Beltsville Crucible" and "So Strange I Remember You." Most recently, The Artist in the Ambulance
featured "The Abolition of Man" (remember the brutal arabian style breakdown outro?) that was followed by the chill and mostly 5/8 piece, "Don't Ask and We Won't Tell." Now on Vheissu
we are blown to smithereens by the powerful yet progressive "Stand and Feel Your Worth" only to be lulled back to safety with "Red Sky." This song really transforms more than any other song on the album excepting "For Miles" and contains more modal mixture and assorted chromatic notes, especially in the keyboards, than any other song on the album. It's also the longest and spends the most time building its enormous crescendo. I feel I can't go through this song in the same way I did on the others so I'll just say that it reminds me a lot of Glassjaw's "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence:" after a whole lot of pretty and enticing meandering (think bII Neapolitan chords and bVI chords) the song sheds its ovaries for a final crescendo that will absolutely floor you with the right amount of volume.
This album's closer, "Red Sky,"
does just what I claimed it would in the beginning of the "Stand and Feel Your Worth" commentary. It lulls you back into the midtempo and most tranquil melodic moments of the album. I almost liken this to Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack" but with actual drumming and a more traditional structure. The verses, which are just really sleepy and lulling make way for a chorus that starts in a simple way but then connects with the lyrics "At the bottom / Of the sea" in a really cool way as the chord changes to introduce the only real moments of dissonance in the song with diminished and minor chords. After a simple repeat the song goes into the final moments of the CD, in which it sounds as if the song switches to the relative key and just plays out a simple yet beautiful ending chord progression. It is the denouement to "Stand and Feel Your Worth's" crushing and suspenseful climax.
Overall, I hoped I've been able to comment a lot on not just the overall additions to this album but also the general tonality and complexities of each song from both the technical music theory point of view as well as the inexplicable yet tangible emotional side of the album. Like, I prided Thrice so much on earlier, they really know how to produce technically awe inspiring music while simultaneously evoking a strong emotional reaction, which is equally powerful and awesome. In my mind. this album is Thrice's step out the door from their punk past. They've really gleaned out the elements in songwriting that have made them successful. Their lyrics are interesting, their song structure is varied and intelligent, and their ability to be technical and produce uptempo sections has always been there and is featured minimally but profoundly on this album. The new frontier they've struck out upon features midtempo chord progression and shows a focus on atmosphere, dynamics, and very impressive melodic and harmonic variety. In some ways this album really disappoints me. I listen to a lot of chill and aggressive music, and this album has moments of both, but doesn't fit into either category. Nor is it one of the best albums in either of those two general classes of music. Even in terms of mixed albums it isn't the best, falling behind Deftones' White Pony
and Isis' Oceanic
but this album still provides another grand volume in Thrice's career. It will probably go down as their most understatedly genius album, but also be a pinnacle for Thrice's most awkward stage. They have grown intelligent beyond their precocious
beginnings but haven't become absolute masters of the craft they're trying to create. They have ditched their old punk grittiness but haven't managed to embrace their future sound. I can't place a finger on their final destination, but I sense it's going to push together arena and progressive rock with really avant garde hardcore. This album is the beginning of what will be a slow progression towards what I hope will be genius, but this album still remains a jutting first leap into that uncharted territory. Powerful and beautiful as it is, it is flawed, at moments with cheesiness, at moments with tedious repetition, but thankfully the overall result really is intelligent and attractive. As I have progressed well beyond my earnest beginnings at tennis camp, Thrice has pushed out into the unknown. I hope there is a fecund future for both parties.
Recommended Tracks: The Earth Will Shake, For Miles, Of Dust and Nations, Stand and Feel Your Worth