Many people outside of the music scene have never heard of Thrice’s The Alchemy Index, so allow me to provide an introduction. The Californian band, led by vocalist Dustin Kensrue, released their first album, Identity Crisis, in 2001. It was a hardcore punk album that played up to nu-metal fans well, and with each passing album, Thrice lowered the volume a little, before releasing the alternative post-hardcore Vheissu in 2005. The album explored themes of death, loss, and glory, but its experimentation wasn’t enough for the creativity of Thrice. They embarked upon the journey of creating a double album, which turned into 4 separate 6-song EPs. Each EP has a theme, reflected in the music and the lyrics, that follows the elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.
Yeah, I know. You’re doubtful. How could any band – much less one who’d been around for half a decade – create such an ambitious project? And how could they make it any good? But then again, if you don’t aim high, will you ever succeed? Maybe not. Thrice didn’t take the time to find out; they wrote the albums, recorded them, and released them to relatively good reviews. But still, hardly anyone has heard of them. Why?
Well, The Alchemy Indexdoesn’t lend itself well to the casual listener. It is made for complete and total immersion, and that is the only way to discover its true beauty. Treating each EP separately, or even each “album” separately (the first two EPs were released in late 2007, the second two in early 2008) doesn’t make sense – these 24 songs are one complete work. They are tied together even further by the last track on each EP. “The Flame Deluge,” “Kings Upon The Main,” “Silver Wings,” and “Child Of Dust” are all sonnets set to music.
Foreboding distorted howls open Fire, before explosive guitars burn “Firebreather” to the ground. The first EP is partly a look back to their hardcore roots, but it’s also partly “drunk with vivid flame” (“Backdraft”) that scorches the songs with an epic quality. Even those who don’t like hard rock can enjoy the instrumentation on Fire, especially when the conflagration comes to a peak on “Burn The Fleet” (which contains a choir!). It is a fitting transition into the Water EP. Damp electronic beats drench “Digital Sea” and “The Whaler” in a deluge. Water‘s gentle tunes are almost the opposite of Fire, and the album’s first great standalone song appears in “Open Water,” where Kensrue moans “I’m starting to believe the ocean’s much like you/ Because it gives and it takes away.” The instrumental “Night Diving” is another highlight, when the fiery guitars of the first EP join the diluted beats of the second for a duet.
Despite the genius of their musical strains, the first two EPs are nearly opaque with originality. Thrice needed something more transparent, and they supplied it with the next two EPs. Air begins with clean guitars and a significant portion of the band’s Vheissu tones. “Broken Lungs” explores 9/11 through painful eyes that “woke up to a brand new skyline” and “watched the buildings fall,” and the EP continues with the alternative/pop/rock “The Sky Is Falling” and the vast “Daedelus,” which tells the story of Icarus through the eyes of his father, who sings, “all I wanted was a new life for my son to grow up free.” “As The Crow Flies” brings in a finger-picked electric guitar for a neo-folk piece that transition well into the Earth EP.
And after Air, the most diverse of the EPs, Earth brings it back down to…well, you know where that one was going. The EP is grounded in the acoustic guitar, which is plucked behind the nostalgia of “Moving Mountains” and the spirituality of “Come All You Weary,” possibly the album’s best track. Piano appears on “The Lion And The Wolf,” before the album is closed by the sonnet “Child Of Dust” and its sudden disappearance into lo-fi (the end was recorded with a buried microphone).
The Alchemy Index is not a collection of songs. There is not one hit on here. Instead, it is a concept…a rambling, gorgeous, sublime concept. It may not be executed to perfection, but it is executed exactly the way it was intended to be, and that is rare at best. Thrice has created an epic piece of music that will still be played by many of us in decades.
Stream: “Open Water”
Stream: “Broken Lungs”
Stream: “Come All You Weary”
Stream: “Child of Dust”