Thrice – Major/Minor: Minor Setback… or Major Bummer?

2011_Thrice_MajorMinorArtist: Thrice
Album: Major/Minor
Year: 2011
Grade: C+

In Brief: Fans who longed for a “return to roots” will rejoice, but for me, much like its brown-and-beige cover, Major/Minor is in desperate need of a little more color.

I tend to admire certain bands for their chameleon-like nature, for having the tenacity to change up their sound from one album to the next and demonstrate a sort of creative restlessness in the process. This tends to play better with a band’s fanbase in some genres more than others, and typically I’d imagine the harder side of rock music to be one of the trickier genres in which to attempt experimentation. Yet Thrice has managed to hang on to a pretty good following despite drifting from their roots as a hard-edged, punk-influenced, post-metal band, daring to give mathy time signatures, chilled-out keyboards, and even occasional folksy elements the spotlight on various albums over the years. I got into them at right around the time they started to bring more ambient elements into their music, which created a lovely blend of soft and hard sounds on their 2005 album, Vheissu. But it was the follow-up, The Alchemy Index, that truly fascinated me by isolating different elements of the band’s sound on four wildly different EPs. I figured after that I’d be on board, regardless of where the wind blew. Beggars may not have blown me away two years ago, but it was a sturdy album, a sort of reaction against overthinking things that had a sort of anything-can-happen vibe to it. There simply wasn’t any predicting where their wandering would take them next. So I was quite surprised – and not necessarily in a good way – when their latest offering, Major/Minor, essentially constituted a return to the ragged hard rock with which they first made a name for themselves.

Remember The Artist in the Ambulance? That seems to have been the album where Thrice came into their own, proving that Dustin Kensrue could hit as hard with thought-provoking songwriting as he could with his gruff shouts and screams. The band was scarily efficient on that record, hard-edged riffs and rhythms a-plenty, and while it’s not my personal favorite Thrice record, I have a lot of respect for it due to how it splits the difference between wall-to-wall heaviness and occasional moments where a strong melody really shines through. Now, imagine that Vheissu and all that came after that record never happened – that the band had barely ever touched a keyboard or started fiddling with their gear in all sorts of nerdy ways. Imagine that song ideas which would have surfaced on Vheissu or Beggars in our own “prime universe” instead emerged in this alternate timeline I’m positing here, less experimental and more in-your-face in a musical sense, but still as hard-hitting lyrically. For the most part, that’s how Major/Minor seems to work. There are a few mellower moments, but the focus never once steps away from the band’s core elements – heavy guitar and a tight rhythm section. There’s more sung than shouted here, so in that sense it’d still be a shift in tone after Ambulance, but fans of their heavy stuff would probably adapt more easily than they did to Vheissu. This could well be a cause for rejoicing amongst Thrice fans. But for me, a listener who tends to pick up variance of sound first, awesome riffs and melodies second, and thought-provoking lyrics after all the dust settles, it’s been hard to get to that third stage. I keep forcing Major/Minor upon myself, rocking out to a few tracks but then finding most of the album disappearing into a haze of sonic sameness. They’re consistent, they’re loud and proud, and I certainly don’t think this constitutes a dumbing down of their sound. But am I excited by it? Honestly, not really. It’s troubling, because Thrice is one of my favorite bands and I’ve often found a lot of value in songs of theirs that I might have originally overlooked for not sounding as unique upon first listen. Here, I feel like I have to try extra hard to make that happen.

Another interesting thing about Thrice is how Dustin Kensrue’s Christian beliefs have always lurked just under the surface of his lyrics, easily identifiable to those who share those beliefs, but aiming for a more poetic, less blunt expression of faith so as to raise curiosity rather than ire among fans who don’t share those beliefs. heck, not even everyone in the band is a Christian, so I’m honestly surprised that he gets away with it to the extent that he does. Major/Minor seems to hit harder on some of those themes than most of their albums do, so if you’re not of that particular persuasion and this sends up red flags, consider yourself warned. Personally, I think it’s handled a lot better than a lot of self-professed “Christian rock” bands handle it, and presumably it’s all interpretive enough that some aspect of each song is still meaningful to the guys in the band who don’t see things the same way but who all worked together to give the song its edge. It’s sort of like how I feel when I discover my spiritual brothers and sisters working in the indie scene – I can tell they write about this stuff in their own words and not necessarily the jargon they were taught growing up, because it’s something with personal meaning to them that they can’t help but express – not because of some sort of Jesus quota that certain gatekeepers want them to fulfill. Generally, I think that Thrice handles this topic with deft grace. But Dustin might be pushing his luck just a tad with this one. As always with this sort of thing, you mileage is likely to vary greatly from mine.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Yellow Belly
The opener – with its repetitive but effective guitar riff – gets the job done nicely in terms of expressing righteous anger about something that’s perfectly understandable for Christians (or anyone else, for that matter) to be upset about. Dustin’s voice has a frustrated, “give that guy a lozenge” sort of tone, embodying one of Jesus’s biggest gripes without needing to name-drop. It’s a rant against modern-day Pharisees who see suffering but turn a blind eye. “Your hands were made to comfort, but they only conjure fear, but you don’t care/And she’s in the closet praying, ‘Lord, please get me out of here’, but you don’t care.” It’s an uncomfortable song because it calls out people who talk a good talk on the subject of justice, but don’t do anything to actually relieve the world’s suffering. Yeah, a lot of us Christians are implicated in this one, because you figure we get taught this stuff or at least we should if we’re reading carefully, but too often, we don’t do jack about it. You could choose to interpret this song’s moral outrage completely apart from religion if you wanted to – I think it’s something that should tick off secular humanists just as much as it oughta tick off Christians. Anyone who claims to love their fellow human being. Fact remains, it’s easy to recognize a problem but to be too lazy to even try to put a dent in that problem.

2. Promises
The prophetic voice calling us wimpy mortals out for all of our crap continues in this song, which laments how easily we throw around promises without really considering the meaning of them at the moment when they’re made. Talk of chivalry and diamond rings is thrown around… and yeah, I liked this song a lot better when it was called “The Weight”. That one did a better job of balancing the harshness with its own solemn vow to really be there through the hard stuff, so it felt more like a man challenging himself rather than just pointing the finger. The rhythm of that one flowed a lot better – this one is more jarring, the rhythm guitar stabbing with its distorted, serrated edges. Teppei Teranishi‘s lead guitar really sings, though, so ultimately, I still enjoy this track even though it feels like a retread of an idea Thrice has already explored.

3. Blinded
There’s something simultaneously dirty and melodic about the riff that opens this song. It’s like Teppei found the perfect distortion tone to make something superficially pretty but rotten on the inside. That’s sort of what this song is about – a man recoiling in horror as he’s faced with his own unrighteousness, despite thinking for his entire life that he was one of the good guys, the moral compass to lead all of the others. Phrases like “Kept a close watch on the whitewash, disguising the dead bones inside” will certainly ring familiar to the church-going contingent, though ironically the song describes a sort of hypocrisy that is easier for outsiders to recognize within us than it is for us to see it within ourselves. I’m glad that this song appears at this juncture, coming after two pretty harsh songs that could feel like a lot of finger-pointing if taken out of context. It also brings grace into the equation to remind us that righteousness isn’t all about self-flagellation and self-hatred: “I was worse than I ever feared I could be, but somehow, I was loved more than I ever dared to believe because of you.” Sometimes I think this one could use a bit more color, but Riley Breckenridge does a lot to fold it together with his rat-a-tat percussion rhythm while his brother Eddie Breckenridge locks down a steady bass line.

4. Cataracts
I sort of feel like the rhythm section owns this song. Riley gets his fair share of invigorating drum fills, and at times Eddie’s lurching bass riffs are just as important, if not more, than the lead and rhythm guitars. The result is that it’s a decent song for the band to jam to, but not one of the more melodically memorable tracks on the album. That’s fine – this isn’t necessarily the kind of music that needs strong melodies to make it work. But sitting in the midst of an album that already feels like it’s had a lot of its color desaturated, and being the second song about blindness in a row, makes this one easy to overlook. It’s sort of a prayer for a cure to the blindness recognized in the previous song – “Cut these thorns and kick these stones, and keep those birds at bay/Plant deep and dark, and help my heart receive the words you say.” I can see the good intentions here. I just feel like only half the band is really putting in the effort to make this one stand out, though.

5. Call It in the Air
This song starts out with a quick, rolling rhythm, and in fact it’s one of the best tracks in terms of demonstrating Riley’s skills on the drums, the rest of the band navigating around the rolls and fills like expert pilots as the song gets progressively harsher and more urgent. At the beginning, the relatively mellow guitar melody almost fools me into thinking it’s a ballad akin to “The Great Exchange” from Beggars. Some may argue that this one’s stronger for being more of a confrontational rocker, but I think “The Great Exchange” has a beautifully tragic metaphor that this song lacks. Dustin immediately lays down the premise that your life is like a coin in the air, and you only have a limited amount of time to bet on heads or tails – so stop putting it off and make a decision already! Assuming that I even buy the metaphor in the first place – and honestly, it’s a rather contrived one – this is one of the moments where I feel that Thrice is being a bit heavy-handed. It’s not that I doubt the truth of this song’s underlying meaning (which is to say that in the end, you either have saving faith or you don’t, and there’s no middle ground), it’s just that I doubt the effectiveness of this particular method of communicating it. It’s sort of self-defeating to insist that someone bet on one of those two options – either believe in God or don’t – when that person likely isn’t even convinced that those are the only two options on the table. (The old Pascal’s Wager trick only works in a vacuum where there aren’t competing religions with mutually exclusive belief systems.) Aside from all that, while I should appreciate how the song’s melody gets more aggravated and atonal as it hurtles towards its conclusion, I have to be honest and say that this aspect of the song starts to grate on me as well. There’s some terrific musicianship going to waste here.

6. Treading Paper
Oh, wow. Did Thrice just go and write themselves a Switchfoot song? I didn’t realize it at first, because the slow, ominous opening that later erupts into fiery power chords (while still keeping the song largely in “power ballad” mode) is distinctly latter-day Thrice. But yeah, they’ve devoted an entire track to telling us this: “If anything means anything/There must be something meant for us to be/A song that we were made to sing/There must be so much more than we can see.” You can throw all of the literate words like “ascertain”, “imminent”, and “numinous” in there that you want, but when it gets down to it, they’re positing that the existence of a longing for something beyond the physical realm must mean that something more exists. Hey, I believe that something more exists. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m just saying that they’ve written merely the opening and closing paragraphs of an essay that purports to make a case for this. The reasoning in between is largely missing. And for all of the fiery riffing, the song’s vacillating between quiet and loud dynamics doesn’t really do much to take it beyond the trappings of predictable post-grunge alternative rock, which is disappointing for a band who I know is more talented than this.

7. Blur
If you were feeling a bit sleepy due to the pace of that last track, this one’ll jolt you out of your stupor. it feels tailor-made for the head-bangers who have followed Thrice since the old days – it seems like a few of these tracks do inevitably surface on each of their albums, and while I’m not really part of that segment of their fanbase, I’ve appreciated past attempts like “Hold Fast Hope” or “The Arsonist” that have melded blisteringly fast riffs and tricky rhythms into something that those of us observant enough to take a peek under the hood will appreciate that much for doing so. Here, it’s a loud blast of energy in 4/4 time (except that I’m not sure what the heck the pre-chorus is doing – it seems to change chords at unpredictable intervals), sort of like “Talking Through Glass” did on Beggars, but ultimately with a stronger sense of slamming and swelling than that track had. What weakens this one is rather minimal lyrics and not terribly clever rhymes, briefly employed to support a lyric on the tried-and-true subject of being lost in a morally grey area, unable to find one’s bearings. The lyrics read like lines cherry-picked from what could have been a more complete and profound poem. It feels like, since the goal is getting the crowd moving with neck-snapping force, lyrics took a back seat, and that’s a bit of a bummer coming from a band who has previously shown the ability to stimulate the birth of as many or more brain cells than the ones that would get killed off while head-banging.

8. Words in the Water
To me, this feels like the lone moment of true experimentation on the album, like a track that could have easily appeared on The Alchemy Index, except that it might have been hard to figure out if it was more thematically appropriate for Water or if its more organic take on experimental rock might have made it a better fit for Air. It’s a curious case of the verse being a more intriguing setup than what is eventually paid off during the chorus, as Riley kills it yet again with a continuous drum roll that turns a 5/4 rhythm into something like 20/16. While Teppei moodily vamps over this with a minimal, lament-filled guitar melody. Dustin’s lyrics are at once a relief and a stark challenge, describing the odd situation of finding a book floating in a river, and trying to read it while fighting the tide. The words – and I think we can probably read between the lines and figure out whose words they are – seem to give life in the very same breath that they make life really difficult. “They were honey on my lips, but then a bitter twist in my side”, he notes in the chorus, which unfortunately trades in the interesting, textured rhythm of the verse for a much more conventional, power chord-heavy 6/8, bringing a touch of more traditional heavy rock to the song that arguably makes it a better fit for the album, but also limiting the impact of its otherwise unique vibe. This feels like a more personal look into a transformative moment that Dustin must have had at some point, and as a person of faith, I can relate to it without it needing to be revealed in plain text who he’s talking about. It’s also worth noting that the title of this one is an interesting counterpoint to “Treading Paper” (as you’d normally expect to tread water and find words on paper). Those being the two mellowest tracks on the album, this can’t be a coincidence. Where that one struggled to stay afloat, I find that this one almost immediately rises to the top of my very short list of favorite tracks on this album. I’m not saying that all of Major/Minor should have sounded like this (or else I’d likely be singling out the odd heavy rock song that doesn’t quite fit as my favorite), but this is a glorious relief from the sonic sameness found elsewhere.

9. Listen Through Me
Alright, so it’s gonna sound hypocritical for me to critique this album for relying on the same drums/bass/guitar combo and not really throwing in other musical colors, and then to bag on the one song that does seem to use another instrument prominently. But hear me out. I like keyboard that Teppei apparently dragged out of storage for this song’s verses – they help to brighten up an otherwise dull mid-tempo track that seems to want to bludgeon me to death with its overly simplistic melody. I’ve enjoyed how Thrice has interwoven keyboards and guitars on more experimental songs in the past (see “Between the End and Where We Lie”) or even been so bold as to let the keyboard take the lead role (see “Atlantic” or most of the Water disc). Here, it’s really about all the song has going for it. The rhythm guitar breaks in loud and heavy for the chorus, though it’s one of the most pedestrian uses of said instrument in Thrice’s catalog with Dustin bellowing “Listen to me, though I speak of sober things!” as if he were a rabid street preacher of some sort. Fittingly, this is the most obvious Jesus song he’s likely ever written for the band, and it squeaks just about as close to the edge as a Christian in a mainstream band can probably get without actually name-dropping old J.C. “When shadows all had clung and the light diminished, he emptied out his lungs, crying ‘It is finished!'” Come on, I can’t think of anyone in your audience who can’t suss out who you’re singing about. I’m certainly not opposed to rock music with an evangelistic message – but again, I tend to question its effectiveness when it’s this uncreatively phrased and basically screaming for your attention. Worst song on the album, and possibly on any of Thrice’s albums that I’ve heard thus far. (I’ll confess to not having gone any further back than The Artist in the Ambulance, so if there are some real stinkers and/or un-subtle religious tracts on those older discs, feel free to let me know.)

10. Anthology
Now that’s more like it guys. The lead and rhythm guitars lock together with a sense of newfound joy here, the lead sticking to brash but voluminous power chords that know just when to start and stop to accentuate the peaks in the song’s melody, while that melody is joyfully provided by the lead, ringing out in a confident fanfare of triplet notes. It’s possible to view the album as a sort of refining process that a character goes through, realizing his own darkness and dirtiness and hypocrisy at the beginning, facing the challenging words of a man who is more than a man, who urges him to dig deeper and try harder, and now he comes out the other side, not perfect, but confident in his salvation and in the pact that he has made with this generous and yet challenging teacher. Here he’s raring to go out and fight the good fight again with a new sense of purpose, but also aware of his place in the proceedings: “It’s true that you could snap my neck, but I trust that you’ll save my life instead, ’cause our love is a loyalty sworn.” I honestly don’t know why this one’s called “Anthology”, but if you were to throw this onto a Thrice compilation as the lone “new song”, the closing thought on which to put an exclamation mark on the band’s career, then I wouldn’t consider it a bad choice. It’s not easy to find slamming heavy guitar work and an unbridled, joyful melody that can actually work together in a hard rock song without sounding contrived. This one passes that test and puts a smile on my face in the process.

11. Disarmed
One of the fun things about genuinely believing you’ve been saved is the ability to tell Death where he can stick it. This song takes that age-old taunt “O Death, where is thy sting?” and attempts to modernize it in the form of a closing ballad that slowly unfolds much like Vheissu‘s “Red Sky”. Teppei has a slow, sliding lead guitar melody that is interesting at first but that gets sort of repetitive as the verses make their slow build toward the chorus. Once we’re through those, it’s a steady free-fall to the end, the guitars more concerned with noodling around and gliding like freed birds that had just recovered the sky than with any traditional sort of riffing. It’s a bit back-to-basics in terms of the ingredients compared to what a lot of indie bands have done with that sort of guitar sound, but it’s a change from Thrice’s usual recipe on this album, so I can’t complain too much. This is an effective enough closing track – maybe not a total standout, but thematically speaking it’s a perfectly logical note to go out on.

In the end, I think I can bring myself to give Major/Minor a very reserved recommendation. If you personally feel like the band lost their way after Ambulance or Vheissu, then who knows, this one might find you welcoming them back into the fold. I personally believe that they can do better, and I hope that if this is what they’d consider a “return to form”, that they start getting restless again and tinkering with the form a bit more, because for me, that’s the fun part about following a band over the long trajectory of its career.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Yellow Belly $1.50
Promises $1
Blinded $1.50
Cataracts $.50
Call it in the Air $.50
Treading Paper $.50
Blur $.50
Words in the Water $1.50
Listen Through Me $0
Anthology $1.50
Disarmed $1
TOTAL: $10

BAND MEMBERS:
Dustin Kensrue: Lead vocals, guitar
Teppei Teranishi: Lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals
Eddie Breckenridge: Bass, backing vocals
Riley Breckenridge: Drums, percussion

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/3ki3tSuqeZ6eUy3CAAok9k

WEBSITES:
http://www.thrice.net
http://www.myspace.com/thrice

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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One thought on “Thrice – Major/Minor: Minor Setback… or Major Bummer?

  1. Pingback: Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere: I guess that explains Waldo, Carmen Sandiego, and the beef. | murlough23

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