[29 September 2011]
“If anything is anything, there must be something meant for us to be.” Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue sings that slightly clunky phrase with rapturous zeal on “Treading Paper” ,an emphatic highlight from his band’s eighth studio album, Major/Minor, with his pseudo-spiritual pleas circling in a drain of raw distortion and clamoring beats.
Vague and open-ended as the lyric may be, Kensrue may as well be singing about his band’s career. Over the course of their first seven albums, Thrice never quite figured out what sort of style it liked best, exploring straightforward post-hardcore (like 2003 fan favorite The Artist in the Ambulance), mild alternative experimentation (2005’s Vheissu), and even approaching flat-out art-rock later in the decade with the divisive four-EP package, The Alchemy Index. It’s good for a band to be curious by nature, willing to try out any idea that pops into its brains—without that desire to explore the unknown, why bother releasing album after album? Inevitably, though, many Thrice diehards (especially those who found The Alchemy Index‘s classical concept pretentious and boring) have openly craved a return to the band’s rougher roots. Basically, cutting the bullshit and getting back to basics.
In many respects, Major/Minor is exactly that. Gone are the electronic ghosts that pulsed through Alchemy, vanished are the dreamy guitars and ambience that defined their last effort, 2009’s Beggars. Much of Major/Minor finds the band squarely in full-on, stripped-down riff-rock territory, downplaying experimentation in favor of immediate, throat-grabbing structures. Opener “Yellow Belly” wastes no time showing off their newly dusted-off wardrobe, flaunting a raunchy, detuned guitar figure, and Riley Breckenridge’s bass pedal-heavy drum kit. “You don’t care!,” is Kensrue’s mantra, belted to infinity over the track’s numbing repetition. It’s a pointedly drawn exclamation point of an opener, but it hardly adds up to more than a distorted jumble.
Many tracks suffer a similar fate. Several riffs feel half-assed or undercooked (“Promises,” “Blur”), and Kensrue’s tortured lyrics flirt dangerously with cheese. There are religious overtones flowing throughout—though never in an overt, make-it-or-break-it way—which is totally fine, but sometimes his well-intended sentiments are more bland than inspiring. “Call It in the Air” has a really cool title, but the track itself doesn’t measure up, mainly because of the flatlining coin-toss concept: “Every coin will fall (...) / You have to choose what you have to lose (...) / Only one way to see what the outcome will be (...) Heads or tails?!”
But for every stretch of lyrical awkwardness, for every clunky riff, there’s a well-rounded track that demonstrates the power of which these guys are truly capable. As nice as it is to hear them back with much-needed intensity, Thrice almost always sound best when it’s dissecting a track from the inside out: “Cataracts” is downright phenomenal, utilizing a wicked guitar/bass interplay that perfectly suits the raw production, while “Words in the Water” rides a Modest Mouse-esque guitar landscape and Breckenridge’s muscular, driving snare rolls, building to a lighter-waver chorus with a biting melody. “Treading Paper” is bluesy and filled with headphone-worthy details—again, Breckenridge steals the show, perking up the verses with his taut, pitter-patter rim clicks, and snare groove.
Closer “Disarmed” is arguably the finest track Thrice has yet recorded. The lyrics paint a vivid portrait of an epic Good vs. Evil battle, with Kensrue slaying the Devil himself with the power of love: “Unassailable, you waited, the great enemy of man / ‘Til your awful jaws were sated and we were ransomed from your hand / So where’s your landslide? / Where’s your victory? / Tell me now, where’s your sting?” Even better is the music, which swells and builds on gargantuan waves of reverb and delay, Kensrue’s passionate vocal melody soaring delicately above us all.
It ain’t a perfect, cohesive statement, but Major/Minor packs too much power to be ignored.