Review Summary: never change?
It’s clichéd to imagine bands’ ideas are the main thing to dry up as they get older; there’s all sorts of other ways age can make itself obvious, many of which are arguably more damning. Thrice’s latest album Horizons / East
reflects this in full ambivalence, dropping a range of surprise style changes and eye-catching performances while reinforcing almost all the shortfalls long since pinpointed by sceptics of the group’s post-hiatus output.
It plays out as one of their most inspired but least inspiring records to date, but can at least be viewed as a positive step forward in the short term. Many have already proclaimed it an improvement on 2018’s Palms
, testament to its comparative paucity of derivative corniness, but it’s also accurate to view it as a continuation of what that album was striving for. All fumbles aside, Palms
was the most creative and diverse Thrice album since Beggars
, and Horizons / East
pushes the boat out further still, augmenting their post-hardcore/post-grunge fundamentals with nods to jazz, electronic, and alt rock, reminiscent of such artists as Radiohead (“Robot Soft Exorcism”), Jeff Buckley (“Dandelion Wine”) and Deftones (“Still Life”). These names have all been vaguely adjacent to their ballpark at various points, but they’ve never felt so comfortable within the same conversation. This reflects the breadth of Thrice’s innovations as much as the ease a conscientious listener will have in pigeonholing them.
Ultimately, the main issue here has very little to do with originality: diving into Buckley-esque vocal inflections ultimately coaxes out one of frontman Dustin Kensrue’s most compelling performances in years, and guitarist Teppei Teranishi’s makes good use of Jonny Greenwood’s finest arpeggios. Taking obvious cues from worthwhile sources sets Thrice in good stead, yet for all the risks they take over what
they play, even the most disarming of their innovations find themselves trapped within an increasingly stale songwriting matrix. Horizons / East
is as chorus-centric as any mainstream rock record you’ll hear this year, all too often hinting at electrifying new directions only to scale back and mire itself in tepid refrains and hooks that you’d hardly expect a songwriter as experienced as Kensrue to weight so prominently.
“Northern Lights” is a particular offender here: its verses veer headlong into jazz, boasting unexpectedly colourful chord choices and an idiosyncratic lick from Teranishi reportedly inspired by the Fibonacci sequence (a potential first for tolerable rock music), yet the excitement of these things is abruptly overturned by one of Kensrue’s least inspired chorus hooks to date at the same time as its intervals switch from jazz 4ths to rock 3rds and subjugating its earlier flair in service to tired old tropes. The transition is ‘smooth’, but it’s also toothless; the track’s intrigue dies young. “Robot Soft Exorcism” is a similar story, its chorus quaintly resolving the suspense of its intricate verse progression without living up to its stakes, while “Still Life” suffers from the opposite issue, impeccably realising the cloying atmosphere of its chorus but struggling to find anywhere to go thereafter, noodling its promise away in a disappointingly dreary bridge. All too often, Horizons / East
sees fresh thoughts fall by the wayside of predictable pathways.
Perhaps appropriately, the album’s most resonant sections are the ones that directly recall Thrice’s finest qualities rather than teasing a departure. The group’s heart-on-sleeve rock glory may have lost much of its sheen in recent years, but at their best they’re still masterful at moments of ardent rapture. Such moments tend not to span entire songs, but where they come they land like thunder: see the urgency of “The Dreamer”’s verse progression (a dead ringer for the Fire
EP), or “Scavengers”’ earthquake of a final chorus, or even “Buried in the Sun”’s infectious callback to Major/Minor
’s bluesy grunge. None of these songs are destined for Thrice’s top shelf, but they’re welcome reminders of the calibre it takes to get there. Only one rises to the occasion: opener “The Color Of The Sky” is likely the best Thrice song since “Anthology”, a seamlessly paced shapeshifter that sees off a burning sunburst of a chorus with the aid of electronic loops and a momentous performance from drummer Riley Breckenridge. It’s an apt portent of the versatility to come, but unlike anything else here it combines new vocabulary and seasoned strengths into something that feels authoritatively Thrice no matter what angle you approach it from.
So, let no-one say they haven’t been given something to hope for here. It’s encouraging to see Thrice so keen to play with different palettes at this point in their career, and they clearly have enough of their old touch left to make those critical moments count. However, if Horizons / East
really represents a new dawn for the band, one can only hope that its rays penetrate a little further across its recently confirmed sequel. Surely they have more left in them by now than transient promises of former excellence?