For the past six years, Orange County, California quartet Thrice have been blazing new trails for heavy music. They blended caustic screams with heart-aching melodies years before the Warped Tour deemed it fashionable. They helped open the doors for raging guitar solos to be re-embraced by the rock world, and they encouraged their peers and fans to give back to the community by contributing to worthy charities. Now, with the release of their fourth studio album Vheissu, Thrice have taken their boldest and most artistically creative steps to date.
While their earlier material was driven by crunchy riffs, intricate guitar playing and songs that bounded between yearning melodies and scathing dissonance, Vheissu is alternately rooted in mystical and atmospheric textures and arrangements that refuse to draw distinctions between loud and soft. Vheissu is the kind of album that is unexpected, unprecedented and undeniable.
"Image of the Invisible," the album's first single, starts with the sound of Morse code, then shifts into a stuttery beat before being consumed by post-punk guitar clamor and clattering drums. Just as it reaches its most aggressive point, tuneful call-and-response vocals flow through the mix, counteracting the menacing vibe. Then there is "Atlantic," which features drifty, echoing keyboards and acoustic strumming and "Like Moths To Flame," a sonic see-saw filled with moody piano, marching drums and a visceral wall of guitars.
"Our biggest goal was to make something different, even if we didn't know at first exactly what that meant," singer Dustin Kensrue says. "We just knew we wanted it to be atmospheric and create a space you could kind of live in. Our records have been kind of flat and two dimensional in the past, so we definitely wanted to try to do something more open sounding."
"I think I just got a little burned out on really aggressive, heavy music," adds drummer Riley Breckenridge. "Suddenly, the stuff that was moving me was not inspiring me to get all riled up and want to tear somebody's head off, but something that had really dramatic dynamics and mood swings with the way the chords moved from verse to chorus."
Unlike their past albums, which were penned during downtime from touring, Thrice came up with many of the ideas for Vheissu while they were on the road supporting their 2003 record The Artist in the Ambulance. The extra time the band gained from writing in the bus gave them the ability to experiment without worrying about having to meet an impending deadline.
"In the beginning, we were actually swinging a lot further left than this record even is," says Kensrue. "We were writing really slow, really weird stuff, but I think it was good for us to be able to push our boundaries like that, then come back to a place where we were still pushing out, but at the same time doing something that was more of a logical step from the last record."
Even after the songs were streamlined a bit, the songs were still packed with startling, ingenious touches, like the chain gang chorus that cuts through the murky, multifaceted strains of "The Earth Will Shake," the sparse piano and underwater drum sounds of "Of Dust And Nations" and the swelling oppressive guitars in "For Miles," which build like a sky full of dark clouds before erupting into a chaotic thunderstorm. One of the most alluring tracks is "Music Box," in which a haunting Japanese music box melody overlaps a procession of lumbering beats, crashing guitars, angular licks and acoustic jangle.
"The actual music box we recorded is this little cheapie thing I bought for $2 in a gift shop at the bottom of a hotel in Japan," guitarist Teppei Teranishi says. "I thought it was really beautiful and dark at the same time, so I just sat down with it one day and started to write chords around it."
The open-minded approach Thrice took for Vheissu allowed them to write songs that were as surprising and inspirational to the four band members as to their fans. The mystery of the process is summed up by the album's cryptic title, a reference from the Thomas Pynchon novel "V." The moniker is similar to the German phrase "Wie Heisst du?" which translates to "what are you called," a good question in Thrice’s current era of transformation and
"I really like one-word titles like Bjork's Vespertine or Radiohead's Amnesiac," Kensrue explains. "They offer this brief splash of something rather than some big statement. After I read ‘V,' I recommended that because I felt it was a really beautiful word and it has a mysterious quality to it. And it doesn't have a loaded meaning, so it's free to take on the meaning of the record rather than trying to inform what the meaning of the album would be before you even listen to it."
The evocative cover art for Vheissu was designed by acclaimed author Dave Eggers, who wrote "A Heartbreaking
Work of Staggering Genius," "You Shall Know Our Velocity,” and “How We Are Hungry." Eggers says, "I was contacted by Thrice maybe a year ago about doing their new cover. I hadn't done freelance design in many years, so I was intrigued. After meeting the band and reading the lyrics to their new album, I was really happy to be involved. These four men, besides being exceptionally good guys, and incredibly grounded, and are about as socially conscious and engaged as anyone I've known at their age. I think this new album will really mean a lot to their fans, who will benefit a lot from
this band's great passion and eloquence. Also: I want to acknowledge Brian McMullen, who helped execute the design once the band and I had decided on a basic concept."
Thrice worked on the bulk of the record over a nine-month period at Teranishi's new garage studio in Orange County. During that time, they drew strength from within, sometimes to the exclusion of the world around them. This may account, in part, for the sometimes distant outsider tone of some of the music. Once Vheissu was written, Thrice entered historic Bearsville Studio outside of Woodstock, New York with producer Steve Osborne, who has previously worked with Doves, U2
and Peter Gabriel.
"We wanted to work with someone who didn't have a formula for producing heavy rock stuff," Kensrue says. "Also, we felt like his strength with mellower stuff would help us explore that side of our music a little more. It's funny because at times we were erring on the side of not making it heavy because we didn't want it to sound like everything else that's out there, and a few times, Steve said, 'We need to retrack this part because it's just not heavy enough.' He
didn't have a background in heavy music, but he could tell there should be a heavy feel there."
In addition to bursting with an invigorating sense of discovery, Vheissu echoes with the promise of hope, even at its darkest moments. On "Image of the Invisible," for example, Kensrue sings about the power of free will and the vast potential of the human spirit: "We're more than static and dial tone/we're emblematic of the unknown/raise up the banner, bend back your bows/remove the cancer, take back your souls." And he uses his expressive voice to deliver his messages with clarity, artistry and conviction.
"This is the most hopeful record I've ever written," Kensrue says. "I think these songs are very affirming of the value of life and have almost a rallying battle cry aesthetic to them. I felt much less in a state of flux and much less lost now than I used to be. I used to think I had to have all the answers to everything, but now I realized I only need to know things up to a certain point, and I find that much more liberating."
Liberation and personal revelation have always kept Thrice thriving. When they formed in 1998, Teranishi and Kensrue were high school friends looking for a creative outlet, so Teranishi called his skateboard pal Eddie Breckenridge and encouraged him to learn how to play bass so he could be in the group. Since Riley Breckenridge wasn't playing with anyone else at the time, he agreed to play in his brother's group until they found a replacement, but he had so much fun jamming with them that he decided to stay. By late 1999, they recorded their first album Identity Crisis, which they released themselves. This foreshadowed the oncoming metalcore movement.
Identity Crisis earned them a deal with Hopeless/Sub City, which reissued the album and released its follow-up: 2002's stronger and more cohesive Illusion of Safety. Sub City, which gives a percentage of album sales to charity, also woke up Thrice to the importance of giving back, and kick-started their long history with charitable causes. Thrice then signed to Island Records and re-entered the studio to create the more melodic and mature The Artist In the Ambulance, which doubled the sales of Illusion, and increased the band’s fiercely devoted fanbase. As part of its contract, the band insisted that a percentage of album sales be donated to the SSE Foundation. Thrice has taken a
similar path for Vheissu, dedicating a percentage of sales to 826 Valencia, a tutorial program designed to help underprivileged children improve their communications skills. "We feel so blessed and so lucky, we want to share some of our good fortune with people that are less fortunate," Riley says.
With Vheissu, Thrice have done more than give to worthy causes, they've given a gift to the entire music world -- a gutsy album that proves the only limits to musical growth are in an artist's mind. It's difficult to tell where Thrice will go musically after Vheissu, but it's clear that the album has opened the door for them to go just about anywhere.
"It was really eye-opening for us to experiment with sounds and find things that we thought were pretty and beautiful, and then go, 'Yeah, we can do this.'" Eddie Breckenridge says. "It's not like there are any rules. There's nothing stopping us from doing anything we want, and that's a really amazing and freeing thing to discover."