Album: To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere
In Brief: Probably the most straightforward record I’ve heard from Thrice thus far – it has an overall “heavy” vibe while not resorting to screaming as often as their old stuff. While not as raggedy as Major/Minor or as stylistically diverse as Beggars, it retains a more unified sound and flows better from track to track, making it their most consistently listenable front-to-back album since Vheissu. A solid set of songs, even if I was hoping for something a little more outside the box this time around.
Thrice is one of those bands that I find pretty dependable, but that hasn’t really blown my mind in a while. I don’t mean for that to suggest that they’ve been putting out subpar material, as I think they’re one of the more articulate and accessible bands that could vaguely fall under the umbrella of “hard” or “heavy” rock music. It’s just that they’ve changed up their sound so much over the years that it’s hard not to be biased toward the sound of whatever album of theirs you first fell in love with. For Thrice’s earliest fans, that’s the “screamo” sound of their old days – and I don’t mean to use that word disparagingly at all; it’s just that this was their history up until right before I was first turned on to their music. Dustin Kensrue has a strong enough voice for the screaming to sound genuinely urgent rather than just whiny, and he’s developed quite a bit as a singer over the years, unlike some heavy rock vocalists who sound downright silly when they try to do anything more melodic. My personal first experience with the band was their 2005 album Vheissu, when the heavier aspects of their sound started to collide with more melodic choruses, a few math-y time signatures here and there to throw the listener off their game, and some more textured mellow tracks, all of which suggested a band brimming over with creative ideas that they could barely contain. I also loved the follow-up, The Alchemy Index, perhaps the band’s most ambitious effort as they tried to compartmentalize the various elements of their sound into four distinct mini-albums, each standing in strong contrast to the other. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a band that can pull together diverse sounds into some sort of a continuous narrative. Everything they did after that – Beggars and Major/Minor – seemed tamer by comparison due to being less experimental, though not without solid highlights. They announced a hiatus in 2012, and by then they had a strong enough body work for me to enjoy that I wasn’t too bummed at the prospect of not hearing anything new for a while. But now it’s 2016 and I’m stoked that they’re back in action.
To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere is one of those records that seems well aware of its position as the first album back after a long-time hiatus. It aims to hit fans square in the face with a strong rock sound, slightly unvarnished around the edges, that ought to be warmly familiar by now, not coloring outside of those margins too much, but instead standing strongly beside their established highlights in a way that ought to help the new material fit seamlessly into concert setlists. My first inclination was to compare this approach to The Artist in the Ambulance, which was Thrice’s last truly “heavy” album before Vheissu turned a creative corner, and looking back now, I think that comparison’s kind of silly because Artist is a way screamier record than I had remembered, though I suppose there were hints of things to come in its more melodic tracks that would fit well alongside material from this record. I can’t really think of a single Thrice album that is easily comparable to this one, which is why it’s weird that the sound of it is so immediately familiar to me. Sometimes a band comes back from a long hiatus and they’ve really changed up their sound, and while I applaud the concept of bands trying to reinvent themselves, the results can often be disastrous for fans expecting a return to a long-dormant band’s glory days, so I’m actually kind of relieved that they didn’t mess with the formula too much here.
A lot of Dustin’s lyrics on To Be Everywhere are on-point in today’s political climate, just as a lot of Artist‘s lyrics were way back in 2003, sometimes getting a little preachy in the process, but I admire his willingness to sing from a place of deep faith and conviction on one track, and then demonstrate extreme skepticism about the stories the general populace has been fed on the next. These are weighty themes that sometimes suffer due to the lyrics being a bit too broad, as if they’re preaching against something that none of us was ever really in favor with to begin with, but it’s not so much about proving a point or winning a political debate as it is about kicking at our complacency with the sources we’re willing to believe and even the lies our own hearts tend to tell us.
Of course Dustin isn’t the whole band all my himself. Guitarist Teppei Teranishi may not get to show off as much as he did in the old days, but he’s still a dependable and formidable performer, infusing some of these songs with an exciting melodic lift while he fills others with a looming sense of dread. With his lead alongside Dustin’s rhythm guitar, and brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge bringing up the rear on bass and drums, the guys create a walloping wall of sound on nearly every track, only stopping to take a breather on a mid-album transitional piece and a closing track that brings to mind the haunting textures of The Alchemy Index‘s “Water” disc. Personally I’d have enjoyed hearing one or two more tracks that subverted the expected dual guitar/drums/bass setup, but I still enjoy a lot of the straight-ahead rockers on this album more than I’d have expected based on my “meh” response to similar material on Major/Minor. I think taking the time off has helped them to hone their skills in terms of songwriting and song selection. There’s really not a bad or even middling track in the mix this time (mid-album transitional piece aside), and even on my favorite Thrice albums, there was always a song or two that I didn’t really care for, so overall, this is a strong resurgence for the band. Sure, I may hope to hear some more curveballs if and when they put out their next record, but I’m quite satisfied with what they’ve given me for now.
While I normally think it’s a bit of a cliche to open a song with a lo-fi clip that sounds like it came from an early demo, I do like the effect it has on this song, startling us when it moves from grainy acoustic guitar and piano to full-blown, heavy electric guitar. It fits the theme of overwhelming trials hitting a couple without warning, as the listener gets pummeled by wave after wave of those punishing power chords. The song isn’t necessarily “heavy” in the sense of old Thrice – it doesn’t have a fast, thrashy tempo or a lot of screaming. The slower tempo actually instills more of a sense of dread, I think – knowing that the storm is going to keep battering you with more than you can conceivably handle, and pleading for any form of shelter from it. Dustin’s strong vocal performance is largely what keeps a song like this from being thoroughly depressing. He sounds appropriately weathered here, and yet his tone remains robust and resolved, in keeping with past songs like “The Weight” where he’s determined that, come hell or high water, none of it will break the bond he shares with the woman he loves. It’s kind of a tragically romantic song in that sense. There are times when I wish the guitar work here was a little flashier, but I do appreciate the subtlety of how Teppei bends the notes of the lead guitar melody while Dustin pounds away on the rhythm – it gives the song a slight bluesy bent that very briefly reminds me of the Beggars era.
2. Blood on the Sand
With its unabashed soft verse/loud chorus dynamic and its blatantly political lyrics, I’m whisked right back to the late 90s by this song, and it’s not necessarily a bad place to be, since I think we’re far enough removed from that era of music that a little nostalgia for the chronological birthplace of Thrice might be warranted. There’s simply nothing subtle about Dustin decrying the ignorance and hatred that leads to violence between religions or ethnic groups on this planet, and screaming, “I’m sick of it!” in the chorus. This is where it helps that he has the chops to put some real power behind that sentiment to make it come off as righteous anger and not just pitiful whining. He’s almost guilty of preaching to the choir with this one, but it’s important to note that he implicates himself as part of the problem: “There’s a gun in my hand, or there might as well be.” Part of coming to grips with things like systemic racism is realizing how a seemingly “innocent” person can be complicit in such a system, effectively pulling the trigger without even realizing how their ignorance can contribute to a lack of change. That takes the song beyond a simple message of “shooting each other is bad” to a place where those of us who could never pull a literal trigger, but who might fall for the fear-mongering peddled by those who would, have to feel a little uncomfortable with it. I think that discomfort is ultimately a good thing. It’s not the most artistic way Thrice has ever tried to get a point across, but it gets the job done.
3. The Window
The odd time signature in this song immediately whisks me back to memories of a few favorite tracks from Vheissu and The Alchemy Index that pulled off a similar blend of math rock and gritty alt-rock. I just love hearing the band go through an off-kilter obstacle course and then resolve it in a powerful chorus, like they do here. The existential crisis of this song – being trapped inside a room and not being able to prove that anything outside the room actually exists – seems like an awfully insular change of subject after the social awareness of the previous song, but I think it’s an important part of the narrative. If you can’t learn how to appreciate that there’s a multitude of identities and experiences out there beyond what you’ve personally perceived, you get stuck in this narrow viewpoint where you just assume by default that everyone’s experiences are like yours. That makes it harder to emphasize with violence going on halfway around the world, or to admit that the society you live in, where people are deemed to be equal on paper, doesn’t treat them all that way in practice (Wow, analyzing the themes on this record sure makes it hard to avoid getting up on a soapbox.) There could also be spiritual implications, of course – doubting that anything exists beyond your own empirical observations can only get you so far. I like that the song’s malleable enough to potentially apply to these different topics of conversation, and yet confrontational enough to prompt the listener to ask questions of themselves, regardless of their starting point. Plus musically, it’s just incredibly addictive, from the tricky timing of its opening bars, to Teppei’s guitar solo in the middle eight, to the slamming, slightly dissonant power chords that finish it off.
4. Wake Up
This may well be the most straightforward song on the album, in that it doesn’t do anything particularly mind-bending or outside-the-box musically, but its no-nonsense aggressive approach fits the urgency of the message. It’s an example of how I think this record pulls off that sort of thing a lot betetr than Major/Minor did. I’m sure you’ve already heard your fair share of political activism-type songs urging you to wake up, open your eyes, etc. – after a while this can getting annoying as that “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party” character from Saturday Night Live. Here, I don’t think the message is that some manifestation of “The Man” is out to get you; it’s more that we are our own worst enemies in terms of squandering the precious resource of time we’ve been given. Procrastination is the ugly vice being preached against here – that innocent assumption that we’ll do things “when we get around to it”, naively assuming that we’re guaranteed a tomorrow, in which we’ll probably put the task off to the next day anyway. Again, it’s not exactly subtle, but it’s motivational if you’re in the right frame of mind. I’m guilty as charged, in terms of putting off important things that need doing so that I can goof around on my iPhone for a few more hours, so every now and then I need a song like this to give me a kick in the pants.
5. The Long Defeat
This song may well be a response to “Hurricane”, in the sense that it continues on that same theme of feeling hopelessly overwhelmed by opposing forces, yet it has more of an optimistic resolve to it. You can hear it in the more anthemic quality of the guitar riffs – still on the heavy side, but more confident, better suited for first-pumping than for navel-gazing. With a chorus that begins “So keep holding on to hope without assurance”, Dustin is almost stepping into the persona of a pastor shepherding his flock, or a commander rallying his troops for battle. (Some of the language here was borrowed from J. R. R. Tolkien, if that helps at all to understand the frame of mind here.) On the face of it, the notion that “Together we’ll fight the long defeat” may seem depressing, but there’s something admirable about that willingness to keep fighting anyway despite the very nature of the universe tending toward chaos and disarray – you’ll go down fighting for the right side even if you don’t see victory here in this mortal life. Dustin has just the right inflection in his voice here, hitting the perfect balance between singing and screaming when he gets to that big chorus, and I love how the dark, thrashing chords at the end lead to a subdued, pensive outro.
I could do without that outro extending into an extra minute of guitar ambiance split off into a separate track, though. I get that this was probably intended as a breather between Side A and Side B of a record that’s fairly intense overall, but it doesn’t really do anything for me. I know the track is named after a philosopher whose words inspired the title of the album, but this piece in and of itself does nothing to illustrate what that concept means.
7. Black Honey
“I keep swinging my hand through a swarm of bees ’cause I want honey on my table.” Now there’s a meaty lyrical hook. Dustin must have thought so, because he builds much of the song around repeating that line, making sure he drives home the notion that the song is about not caring how your own sense of entitlement might affect others, and then acting surprised when it stirs up anger and violence against you. (“Black honey” is, of course, a euphemism for oil. I think you can do the math from here.) This is one of those songs that takes a very simple riff, chord progression, and overall song structure, and really makes them sing, causing me to go against my usual belief that the simpler songs on an album aren’t necessarily the better ones. This one grabs you right away, and it’s not doing anything technically dizzying, but the tone and texture of it are just right, with the band functioning almost like a brutal, heartless, machine, with the humanity behind it only revealed when Dustin’s ragged vocals are hanging out there all alone during the bridge as he moans, “Maybe this time I’ll get it right”. Then his frustration mounts as the song reaches his climax, and despite the imminent threat of the angry bees to the safety of him and his loved ones, he still stubbornly insists, “I’ll do what I want, I’ll do what I please/Do it again ’til I’ve got what I need.” It’s a stunning illustration of the willful ignorance that those in positions of privilege tend to stubbornly hang on to in order to preserve the status quo, even when it puts them in the crosshairs of an angry revolt.
8. Stay with Me
No, this isn’t a Sam Smith cover. (I’m not gonna lie, though – that Sam Smith song really sticks in my head.) It’s more of a melancholy, semi-uplifting anthem in the vein of “The Long Defeat”. On a surface level, this is another song about two people staying together and fighting the odds, though in a twist, this time they’ve beaten those odds and Dustin is asking if she’ll stay with him despite their no longer having a common enemy. In other words, is this relationship forged in the trenches strong enough to survive the absence of what drove them together? It’s an intriguing question not often heard in your average “Two people against the world”-type love song. Apparently the backstory that informs this one is the Josh Ritter song “The Temptation of Adam”, which Dustin rightly recognized as one of the finest lyrics ever written, and he sought to pay homage to it by depicting the aftermath of this “Adam” emerging after having nuked the rest of the world, hoping his “Eve” would want to remain his companion after the fallout settled. You wouldn’t necessarily pick that up just from listening to the song in a vacuum, and following up such a song is an incredibly tall order given that Dustin, skilled songwriter though he is, doesn’t approach anywhere near the level of captivating detail that Ritter often does. It’s apples and oranges to compare the two, really. But I’m always stoked to find out that one songwriter I admire is a fan of another songwriter I admire even more.
9. Death From Above
The most unsettling song on the album has an appropriately uneven, sprawling rhythm to it that reminds me very much of tracks like “Backdraft” and “The Arsonist” from the “Fire” disc of The Alchemy Index. Again, it’s heavy in the sense of more recent Thrice efforts, where Dustin’s roaring voice is almost uncomfortably loud, but he’s singing, not screaming, so there’s a strong melodic component to accompany the sheer brute force of the music. Here he takes on the persona of a drone operator for the military, who faces the moral dilemma of being asked to bomb faraway targets based on little other than the dots and diagrams he sees on the screen in front of them. He doesn’t know the extent to which collateral damage might be occurring, whether he’s killing civilians in addition to combatants. The part that really stings is when he confesses his doubt to the chaplain and he’s told “To shut my mouth and do the will of God.” Just like that, they’ve effectively communicated what Muse awkwardly spent an entire album trying to explain last year – that it’s easier to justify violence when it’s second hand and you don’t see its side effects in person. That’s not to say that Thrice gets is perfect – it seems kind of corny when they briefly revert to a standard 4/4 rhythm so that they can just bang on simple power chords while Dustin bellows “Tell me why?!” It interrupts the flow of the song without giving us any new information – it was already plain as day that the man was wrestling with the reasons behind his actions; they didn’t really need to spell it out for us. Despite that, it’s one of the strongest tracks on the album.
The biggest stumble on the album really isn’t a huge faux pas; it’s just an unfortunate combination of ham-fisted music and easily misconstrued lyrics. Here Thrice examines the point of view of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, who deal with what they perceive as systemic injustices by taking highly sensitive data and putting it out there in the harsh light of day for all to see, well aware of the illegality of the practice but feeling justified due to how it exposes the illegal and/or immoral dealings of the system we’ve implicitly placed our trust in to be above such shady dealings. It’s a complex issue, and I get that telling it from one man’s perspective doesn’t necessarily imply a wholesale justification of that man’s actions, but the song can easily be read that way. It does a decent job of building up a sense of dread as these vigilantes snarl in the shadows, ready to blow the lid off of one conspiracy or another at any point in time, so in terms of pure mood, Thrice got it right, even if they spend a little bit too much time ramming the same power chords down our throats in lieu of an exciting climax. The lyrics are probably supposed to make me uncomfortable, and as I’ve explained earlier in the review, I generally welcome that discomfort. It’s just that I see a huge potential for misinterpretation here.
11. Salt and Shadow
Aside from the instrumental “Seneca”, this is the one track on the album where Thrice does away with the heaviness altogether and opts for more of a chilled-out, textured approach. The guitar tones are more fluid here, with the notes picked out carefully to complement a piano melody, and everything locks into a sort of cold, robotic waltz as Dustin sings to someone on the other side of the table who is so buried in their technology, they’ve lost all focus on the outside world. The wash of vocals in the chorus as they sing “You’re here but you’re not, you’re just salt and shadow/You’re here, but half a world away” is quite chilling, reminding me of similarly gorgeous laments such as “Lost Continent” and “The Whaler” from the “Water” disc of The Alchemy Index. I like how this message is conveyed in more poetic terms, as opposed to the more blunt messages on most of the album. You can feel the sense of sorrow and cold detachment in the relationship as you listen to it. And the song never really comes to a climax like you might expect given its six-minute run time – it just sort of lets its sad dirge tapir off until a stray piano melody echoing the riff from “Hurricane” overtakes it, putting a nice little bookend on the album. Some will find this track a bit too polished and clinical, and instead wish for more of a visceral conclusion, and I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing more of a synthesis between Thrice’s experimental side and their heavy side, but I do appreciate that even on a more straightforward record, they’re still willing to throw a monkey wrench into our expectations with a song like this one. The idea that we long for that gut level, noisy release of emotion at the end, but we never get it, may be exactly what the song is trying to communicate.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Blood on the Sand $1
The Window $1.50
Wake Up $1
The Long Defeat $1.25
Black Honey $1.75
Stay with Me $1.25
Death From Above $1.50
Salt and Shadow $1.50
Dustin Kensrue: Lead vocals, rhythm guitar, synthesizers, percussion
Teppei Teranishi: Lead guitar, synthesizer, backing vocals, piano, glockenspiel
Eddie Breckenridge: Bass, synthesizer, backing vocals, occasional guitars
Riley Breckenridge: Drums, programming
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