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Music Review: Thrice – ‘The Alchemy Index’ (In Celebration of the 2017 Vinyl Reissue)

If you’re talking about artists whose work quickly outgrew the suggestions of their debut, Irvine, CA’s Thrice can’t be ignored. The quartet started out playing a fierce blend of thrash, hardcore, and skate punk. But in the 17 years since their first album, Identity Crisis, the group has experimented with so many influences that some have called it “the Radiohead of heavy music.”

The comparison seems a little simplistic, but it has some merit.

Both bands found some excitement with fresh, but flawed debut albums. They each then released two consecutive albums that were the peak of their genre. These were followed by a sharp turn into left field for two albums.

And if Vheissu is Thrice’s Kid A, The Alchemy Index is their Amnesiac. A collection of experiments that don’t hit quite as hard as the previous album, but they are beautiful nonetheless.

I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the box set back in 2009 when it was first pressed to vinyl. In the years since, the price has ballooned to as much as $400.

But last week, the group announced that they would finally be reissuing the set, up for sale on Thanksgiving weekend. And in celebration of that reissue, I thought it was worth revisiting.

The Alchemy Index is one of the most ambitious projects to ever come out of the Warped Tour circuit. The band recorded four six-track EPs. Each EP would be themed around each of the four classical elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.

In addition to providing lyrical themes, these elements would also drive the sound of each disc. Thrice were experts at blending disparate styles in their music (especially on Vheissu). On Alchemy Index, these styles would be separated.

Fire is a metal record. Water trafficks in electronics and post-rock ambiance. Air sees the group indulging their melodic, alternative rock side. Earth is completely acoustic, exploring folk, blues, and gospel. Each disc ends with the same melodic motif, sung to an old English sonnet.

It’s easy to dismiss the project as contrived. To do so would miss a truly beautiful work of music.

As far as the group swings their hands in all directions, they never grasp blindly. As they traverse through Isis-style sludge metal, orchestral doom, beat-heavy EDM, Mogwai-esque post-rock, hand-clapping math rock, and dirgy gospel tunes, Thrice remains surefooted. Thrice is as confident thrashing through key changes as it is picking through Guthrie-esque arpeggios.

And despite its breadth, the record manages to stay cohesive.

Throughout the four discs, Thrice sounds like no one but itself. And as much as the band tries to keep their elements (pun intended) separated, the group only finds modest success to that end.

“Firebreather” has one of the most powerful melody lines the group has ever written. The ending moments of “Broken Lungs,” which opens Air, matches anything on Fire for intensity. Even Earth has some bite – specifically “The Earth Isn’t Humming,” a cover from post-hardcore/spazcore stalwarts Frodus.

Earth is the weakest entry here, but that speaks much more to the strength of the rest of the project. Its weakness is only a result of its acoustic-only limitation. Though it may be unfamiliar territory for the punk rockers, the band seems right at home. Lead guitarist Teppei Teranashi (who also engineered and produced the project) even played clarinet on the mournful “Digging My Own Grave.”

Personally, the standout disc has to be Air. Sometimes, I’m tempted to just hand that EP to my bandmates and tell them to rip it off as faithfully as they can. “Broken Wings” starts with some of the softest, prettiest verses they’ve ever done, interrupted by a heavy start-stop chorus. “The Sky Is Falling” puts their love of complex beats and tapping riffs to good use.

“Daedalus,” their second look at the Icarus myth, builds from a bluesy indie rock waltz into a punishingly heavy lament across the course of six minutes. “Silver Wings” floats on delay-soaked electric pianos and a drum machine until it leaves earth’s atmosphere.

All in all, The Alchemy Index is one of the finest entries in Thrice’s catalog. While many critics ignore it as a confusing, concept-over-subject vanity project (no doubt as a result of the label’s decision to release it as two two-disc volumes instead of one work), this collection stands toe-to-toe to anything the band has ever done.

Several of the group’s finest songs are littered among the 24 tracks. And while many similar projects might offer quantity over quality, The Alchemy Index doesn’t have any reservations about giving fans both.

About Nathaniel FitzGerald

Nat FitzGerald is a lifetime music enthusiast, both as a listener and a performer.

He lives in South Bend, IN where he plays in the post-gaze outfit SPACESHIPS and runs the blog A Year Of Vinyl, wherein he reviews every record in his (sizeable) collection.