Sound — 9
The second installment of The Alchemy Index is Thrice's continuation of their 'classical elements through music' concept: four EPs comprised of six songs, each representing one of the classical elements. The first two EPs, Fire & Water were released last year (and received a perfect 10/10 from this reviewer), and now we have the second release, containing the Air & Earth EPs. As with Fire & Water, the EPs have very distinctive sounds relating to the element it represents. Earth has a bare-bones, organic sound using almost entirely acoustic instruments. Air is a little more ambiguous, with some drifting post-rock sounds, little acoustic numbers and some more up-tempo rock. In any case, once again the band have absolutely nailed the sonic theme for each element. The atmosphere of each track works perfectly with what we connect with air, or earth (though 'A Song For Milly Michaelson', whilst being very connected to Air lyrically, sounds more earthy than the others). It's a very impressive feat for the band to write six pieces that are all linked together tightly while retaining their identity as their own songs, and good ones at that. The voice of Dustin Kensrue takes the limelight for most of these songs with strong vocal melodies and his own absolutely fantastic voice. However, a lot of songs (particularly on the Earth disc) are kept afloat almost entirely by his vocals, with very little to be heard from drummer Riley Breckenridge or, to a lesser extent his brother Eddie on bass. While I'm sure their input on the songs is as frequent as it has always been, there is not an awful lot of recorded performance from Riley that does too much for the songs. In fact, only five of the twelve songs feature percussion parts that function as anything more than a simple repeated backing to the guitars and vocals. That said, his performances are all very well done, especially 'The Sky Is Falling', which he really brings to life. One interesting inclusion on the Earth disc is a cover of the now-defunct post-hardcore act Frodus. With an idea like this, crafting music into elemental themes, a cover is not exactly the easiest way of achieving it, but Thrice have really found something inside that song and changed it to fit perfectly with their sound on Earth (aside from the suspiciously out of tune guitars) and shows that Thrice really can manipulate sounds and music to form whatever texture they want it to form. With Air & Earth the sounds of Thrice's earlier albums such as The Artist In The Ambulance and The Illusion Of Safety is truly gone. There are only a couple of very short instances of distorted guitars, with the album using mostly acoustic guitars and clean electric guitars. In fact, there are quite a few other instruments used throughout, from classical string instruments to bell chimes to sampled beats. However, Air & Earth are very much about the guitars and vocals, and as disappointing as it is to hear less of Thrice playing together as a full rock band, the composition and execution of these songs is absolutely great.
Lyrics — 10
Dustin Kensrue is a genius when it comes to writing lyrics. All of the songs here, as with Fire & Water, are about quite separate things, but are all linked together by an underlying connection with the respective element. The links are actually quite subtle and clever, with air and earth representing different things to the different people described in the lyrics. For example, in 'Come All You Weary' the earth is a thing which brings mankind together and establishes our solidarity with each other, whereas in 'Digging My Own Grave', the earth represents the inevitable death of a man living the dirty life, it represents his fear of his lifestyle being the end of him, and his reluctance at choosing that path. There are many different situations tied together by simple things like air and earth, from the American's war on terror, to a father's wish for his son's freedom to a simple 'apprentice surpasses the mentor' story. The final tracks from each EP have lyrics that personify the element and are written about humanity through their eyes. These songs, 'Silver Wings' and 'Child Of Dust' are both absolutely beautifully written, with a very sophisticated style and messages that ring true. The final two lines of all four of these ending songs use the same melody and this really ties together each disc in a very moving way. Of course, the lyrics are open to interpretation, but the meanings behind a lot of the songs became apparent to me fairly quickly, whilst still retaining their deeply poetic merit. This is what makes Kensrue such an involving lyricist, he describes situations on personal levels, connects with his audience on a personal level and makes them think about things from an introverted perspective to an all-encompassing perspective.
Overall Impression — 10
Simply from a gut-feeling musical standpoint, Air & Earth are not as good as Fire & Water, as they do not have the stark contrast that Fire and Water had and some of the songs just aren't that exciting ('The Lion And The Wolf'). That isn't to say that it is really a disappointment, as songs like 'Broken Lungs' and 'Silver Wings' are some of the best Thrice have ever written, and considering what these discs represent in the band's creative process, they have easily surpassed anyone's expectations of what they could do. Air, Earth, Fire and Water are all incredible achievements that Thrice should be proud of, as the way they have crafted their music compliments what they were trying to do with it in every way. The beautiful harmony between the harsh, scathing bite of Fire, the subtly sinister ambience of Water, the simple elegance of Air and the suppressed grandeur of Earth all culminate into a truly successful experiment for Thrice. What the next Thrice album will sound like is anybody's guess, but the Alchemy Index is testimony to the fact that the band can go into completely uncharted territory yet still create positively coherent, stimulating and consistently amazing music.