Label: Vagrant Records
Release Date: August 11 (digital) and September 15 (physical), 2009
Review by: Eric Pettersson
- All the World Is Mad
- The Weight
- In Exile
- At the Last
- Wood & Wire
- Talking through Glass
- The Great Exchange
For a band with as strong a history as Thrice, 2005’s Vheissu was far from their best work. It showed growth in a good direction and had some spectacular moments, but something just didn’t work out right overall. Maybe the gain was just turned up too high—who knows? Whatever it was, I believe Thrice recognized that there was a problem. They saw that they had all the right pieces to the puzzle, but they hadn’t put it together correctly.
So they did the only thing one can do in this situation, and they took the puzzle apart in order to start over. However, before making a second attempt, Thrice paused for a moment to admire each piece individually, and as a result we now have The Alchemy Index: Vols. 1-4 on our shelves. This series of EPs was a strong and creative venture, as this alternative/post-hardcore band successfully divided the elements of its style to create six songs for each of the four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. It was experimental and perhaps a tad gimmicky (as is all “experimental” rock music), and I’m sure it stretched Thrice’s songwriting quite a bit.
It was a risky move, and while the music was undeniably good, I was losing interest by the end of the project. Sure, fire was intense and earth was catchy and all that. Each had merit in its own rite, each showed a unique side of the band, but there was still something missing. By focusing in on a specific element of their sound, they were forced to explore and expand their creative abilities, but they did so at the expense of some musical depth and fullness. After all, a puzzle piece on its own can only be interesting for so long. But now, after four EPs of musical deconstruction, Thrice has finally put its sound back together.
And man, just as soon as you hit the play button on Beggars, you know they have come much closer to completing the puzzle correctly. Now, obviously a band’s sound is not as black and white as a jigsaw puzzle, and the pieces will never be laid in exactly the right place, so this metaphor has run its course and will hitherto be abandoned for the remainder of this review. From the first moment the sludgy, pulsing guitars of “All the World Is Mad” hit, you know something is different this time around. There is less rage, less angst, and Dustin Kensrue’s signature vocals are still strong and powerful, but it is obvious he’s learned a lot from doing the less edgy EPs. He often sounds jazzy, and his melodic range seems to have grown significantly. This is what happens when Water is no longer so somber and mysterious and turns into a tidal wave. The feel continues through “The Weight,” until things do take a turn towards the dark and brooding for “Circles,” a softer and slower song that builds into a great indie-rock style guitar solo (think of the really fast two-notes-back-and-forth stuff done by mewithoutYou, Colour Revolt, etc).
“Doublespeak” and “In Exile” both feature grooving bass and guitar work, with great in-depth lyrics. On the former, I’m slowly banging my head while Dustin sings from the perspective of those who choose to live in ignorance to keep their place of privilege at others’ expense. He could easily be calling out churches, political groups, or simply you and me as he sings, “I slowly cut my soul away, and piece by piece I sacrificed, to comfort and peace of mind. I keep my toes on the party line. There’s nothing wrong dear, don’t think twice.” Part of the ambiguity of the song is what makes it so powerful, because it makes sure to avoid falling into the trap it condemns by refusing to label everything in black and white, and by refusing to choose sides and ignore change and depth of character. “In Exile” is more upbeat as it sings about living in this place that is not home, “just passing through” on the way to Heaven. The guitar work is slightly bluesy, without traveling too far so as to be a novelty. Instead, it remains distinctively Thrice.
Those looking for the faster, harder side of Thrice will (hopefully) be satisfied with songs like “At the Last” and “Talking through Glass” (as well as “The Weight”), which feature edgier vocals and enough guitar and drum to get those fists-pumping throughout the whole song. However, I must add a disclaimer that those who only want a return to the early days will probably never get what they want. Thrice has grown, has moved on, and is ready for something new. The edginess is still here, in a smaller measure, but it is still good.
But of course, what makes the new Thrice so great is that they have found a great blend and balance of the old edginess with a more mature direction, exploring more feelings, and adding incredible layers of melody, as on “Wood & Wire.” This slower song offers spacey, multi-surfaced guitar work and perhaps an electric piano. It is sung from the perspective of a man in prison fourteen years for a crime he didn’t commit, who is now walking to his execution. You may recognize the adapted words of St. Paul in the chorus: “For all my sufferings are light and momentary pain, while the weight of endless glory still remains.” To be honest, I’m not sure I get the full symbolism of the song, but it’s pretty deep and I like where I think it’s going, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy digging into it further as I continue to listen to Beggars.
Another spiritual gem on the album appears in the form of a sailor’s mutiny. “The Great Exchange” tells the story of a ship’s crew’s failed rebellion and one particular sailor floating off to sea. As he slips out of consciousness, he hears voices “Singing of a violent, timeless mystery, that one would give his life to save his enemy.” I won’t spoil the end of the story, although the foreshadowing is blatant enough that you basically already have the whole plot. Needless to say, it’s quite powerful.
With the title track, Thrice deliver a strong closer. “Beggars” starts out soft with a jazzy beat and three minutes later builds into a heavy crescendo with some great screams. Lyrically, it reminds me a lot of the book of Job, when God sarcastically asks Job about all his great wisdom and power (which are obviously nothing compared to God’s). In this case, similar questions are being asked of politicians, businessmen, scientists, and other rulers, closing with Dustin’s answer that “If there’s one thing I know in this life, we are beggars all.”
Overall: With added depth and humility, Thrice continue to grow as artists and to progress further into unknown musical territory, instead of falling back on an already established legacy. Beggars is their first full-length in four years, and their stint as alchemists has proved to be a meaningful learning experience. Specifically, the exploration of Water seems to have left the strongest lingering effect, both musically and lyrically, as the soft but dark sounds continue on this album, plus a number of songs include symbolic stories of being out to sea. The spiritual content is as solid as ever here, as Dustin’s faith and lyricism both seem to have matured, together creating even more moving songs. Those longing for more straight-up hardcore-influenced songs may find themselves unimpressed, but those who appreciate melodies and evolving styles will no doubt begin to dig into the many layers of sound and meaning within these ten songs.