Review Summary: This installment introduces the listener to a band that is unafraid to not only deviate from the sometimes crushing heaviness of Vheissu, but to also blindly run in the opposite direction of it.
The evolution of Thrice has been one of the most natural progressions for a band that I have had the pleasure of witnessing. The hard edge of Thrice has been whittled down to a fine point, and this is the band at their most mature. It introduced the listener to a band that was unafraid to not only deviate from the sometimes crushing heaviness of Vheissu, but to also blindly run in the opposite direction of it, as evidenced by Vol IV: Earth. This installment offers a look at a band that has risked the most with this release, as Earth allows for a more Americana/Folk-based sound, relying upon acoustic instruments and taking more cues from vocalist/guitarist Dustin Kensrue's solo effort than anything Thrice has accomplished to date. Air provides a more ethereal, expansive interpretation of the band. The interesting thing about both of Air and Earth is that both of them favor more sparse, loose instrumentation. There is none of the vitriolic, aggressive riffing of Fire or the more intense songs of Vhessiu; this is truly Thrice at their most melancholic and subdued. There is a big question regarding this new approach at songwriting; does it work for Thrice? The answer is a resounding yes. The sparse instrumentation in these songs accent Kensrue's passionate and soulful vocals. There is a weathered, worn quality of his voice that consistently gives this album a geniune feel that I have not heard from many bands. For all of the boundaries broken by the band, this is indeed the strangest turn that they have taken, and the most rewarding to date.
The mid-paced "Broken Lungs" starts the Air album off, and the confessional tones of the slowed-down verses save this song from mediocrity. When Kensrue exclaims, "Are we fools and cowards all/To let them cover up their lies", there is a imperative tone in his voice that is truthful and unrelenting. Sincerity shines through in this release from start to finish, although the first two tracks are arguably the weakest. They are followed by a haunted, somber ballad. "A Song for Milly Michaelson" is the epitome of what Thrice was trying to accomplish; passion before technicality, authenticity before catchiness. This song is one of the best on the album, although the trance-like music does not reek of the idea of "air". That seems to be the underlying problem of the theme behind The Alchemy Index project; how does one adequately create songs that makes one think of elements? It is the only negative thing that consistently show up through this listening experience, and that honestly is nitpicking, considering the songs are incredibly well-done. The gentle guitar-picked patterns of "As the Crow Flies" and electronic-soaked closer "Silver Wings", are succinct and shine with gorgeous melodies.
Though packaged together, Vol. III and IV could not be more stylistically different. Raw, acoustic energy replaces the textured, reverb-laden sound of Air. Earth embraces a more folk-driven sound, which allows for more focus to be put onto the lyrics. The lyrics of "Come All You Weary" paint a desperate picture:
"Come all you weary with your heavy loads
Lay down your burdens find rest for your souls
Cause my yoke is easy and my burden is kind
I’ll take yours upon me and you can take mine
Come all you weary, move through the earth,
You've been spurned at fine restaurants and kicked out of church;
I’ve got a couple of loaves, so sit down at my feet,
Lend me your ears and we'll break bread and eat"
This plaintive reference to anyone that has been shunned, let down, or lost shows the strength in individuals, and allows for there to be hope for the future. It is not so much the lyrical dexterity that is strong here, but rather the strength-in-unity style words that allow for Earth to have an ear to the ground appeal. This is one of Thrice's strongest songs on the album, and in general as well. "The Earth Isn't Humming" starts out off with a very foreboding acoustic guitar, allowing for a darker feel that generally do not accompany an all-acoustic song. The music is accompanied by a darker tone in lyrics, as Kensrue takes on the role of the end-of-times truth teller. Repetition in lyrical concepts is key for this particular album, and while it can grate on the listener in most releases, it succeeds here in sustaining the concepts. "Digging My Own Grave" is a track worthy of note, as the lounge-esqe piano meanders through the track and combines beautifully with Kensrue's soulful vocal performance.
Thrice have created a near-masterpiece with the Alchemy Index as a whole, and while it shows incredible variation and the ability to excel in different genres, it also feels somewhat forced. They intentionally painted themselves into a corner with these releases, and they succeeded brilliantly in creating moving songs that far extend the repetoire that I considered them capable of. One can tell that it is not a path that they will follow with later releases, and it unfortunately feels cheaper for that reason. That idea does not take away from the passion in these songs, nor does it take away from a band that took a blind leap at a next step that was not "Vheissu, Pt. II". The sparse instrumentation allows for the passion to have a voice, and speaks to the listener with an urgency that is impossible to ignore.