Album Review: Thrice – Palms

As I may or may not have ever mentioned before on this blog, Thrice is and has been my all-time favourite band for years. I first discovered the Orange County four-piece in 2002 when I was in my last year of high school, around the release of their second record The Illusion of Safety. At the time, I was taken not just by the band’s energetic buzz-saw riffs and the way they married punk and metal, but by the emotional and thematic depth of Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics, full of evocative imagery and metaphors, a treasure trove of allusions to literature, philosophy, and politics.

It wasn’t until their breakout 2005 record, VHEISSU, that they really began to grow in their sound, abandoning much of the metal influences for more measured, mature song structures and diverse, experimental influences from shoegaze and grunge to arena and blues rock, but that nevertheless retained all the qualities that I had loved from the start.

Thrice took a hiatus in 2012, after the release of their eighth album, Major/Minor, and a double live album, Anthology, which chronicled their farewell tour. I didn’t know at that point whether I would ever get new music from them, but they reformed a few years later and put out what would end up being my number seven record of 2016To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. Now, they’re back with a new record, and since I’m pretty much genetically predisposed to give it a perfect score, I thought in the interest of fairness to the reader, it would be a good idea to enlist the help of my illustrious colleague to render a more even-handed verdict.

Image result for thrice palms

Palms is the tenth full-length studio album from American rock band Thrice. It was released on September 14th, 2018, and is their first album to be released via Epitaph Records. Palms was produced by the band with Eric Palmquist, who previously produced their 2016 album, To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. It was promoted in advance of its release with two singles: The Grey, on July 10th, and Only Us, on August 14th, as well as a sneak preview of the song The Dark, two days before the album’s release.

Mark, let’s break this down track by track.

1. “Only Us”

Josh: This synth stuff isn’t entirely new for Thrice, if you’ve listened to the Water EP and songs like “Digital Sea,” but it is a bit of a departure for them to rely on it so heavily outside of a concept record like that. This has a cool, 80s vibe I dig, but it breaks down into a more traditional post-hardcore bridge that chugs along with a nice energy. Big vocal hooks here right out of the gate, and I dig the humanist lyrical themes of the song (“Finally when will it be enough / to find there’s no them / There is only us”) in lines like “the system that terrifies you should terrify me.”

Mark: I actually love the backing track to this song. It sounds like the opening of a John Carpenter movie. I’m a little less sold on the way that the vocal approach weaves into it, as it is very “rock dude” in its vibe and delivery. Strongly melodic, though, and it builds to a pretty satisfying anthemic back half. This is such a strange combination of being totally up my alley and something that I think is a little cringe-worthy. I have no idea where to fall on this!

2. “The Grey”

Josh: This is the album’s first single. Back to the guitars here, with some of those classic Thrice licks. This is just an all-around great song of the kind you expect from this band. It’s got a tight rhythm section with an emphasis on big sound and interplay between all the band members. Everything is coordinated really well in that there is a lot going on but the instrumental parts all make space for each other. There are some nice bluesy undertones and a proper build up to that huge chorus. Really dig the subtle background vocals that come in during the later iteration of the chorus.

This is also a good time to point out what feels like an emerging lyrical theme on this album. With the opener’s emphasis on coming together, and lyrics here like “find another way to fight,” it feels like Dustin is recalibrating his perspective on the world and looking for common ground. But that will come up more later.

Mark: Really fun riffin’ and rhythm opening up this track. By the time we reach the chorus, things start to feel a little rote to me. The bridge bring back some interest for me, involving a few twists and turns that I was missing from the more calculated-feeling four chord chorus. It’s big, there’s no doubt about it… but it feels very familiar in a way that this track’s better moments manage to avoid. This song is okay. It sounds like the closing credits song from a modern action adventure film.

3. “The Dark”

Josh: This one’s moody. I like the rather spare way it opens with just the drums and guitar and then gives way to a big anthemic chorus. Months ago when they were planning this song, Thrice put out a call for fan submissions to be part of a choir that they would mix together for this song. I sent one in, and while you can’t make out individual voices, I have no reason to believe I’m not one of them that appears at the end of the song. It’s a really cool touch because the decision to include hundreds of fan voices on the record adds to the inclusive feel of the record generally, but especially this song, which focuses on standing up and refusing to be ignored. That’s a sentiment that a lot of people can relate to for a lot of reasons, and it’s also something that feels easier to do with people in your corner.

Mark: I love the guitar work that opens this track. It’s also nicely arranged, the bass hits coming in with a dramatic flourish accompanied by a great-sounding organ. The inclusion of a big fat sawtooth bass synth during the chorus doesn’t hurt at all either. I like this song okay! Great work on the chorus, Josh! I think I can hear you the most!

4. “Just Breathe”

Josh: Damn if this isn’t one of the band’s best songs ever. It has a lot of that punk energy from their older stuff, with a big emphasis on bass—Eddie Breckenridge gets a lot of room to shine all throughout this album. But hooboy that pre-chorus/chorus comes out of left field, and it rules. Set aside for a second the absolute uplifting spirit of this song, which asks you to “stay deep in the moment … just breathe” and instead notice it as an example of how good a vocalist Dustin Kensrue has become. Light years from the kind of whiney screaming he did on the first couple Thrice records, his vocals here are so controlled and beautiful. The addition of guest vocalist Emma Ruth Rundle was a great touch, as the pair mesh so well together. The closing section of the song in which the instruments mostly drop out to make room for just their voices is *chef’s kiss emoji.*

Mark: Yeah, this one is pretty good. The bass guitar sounds particularly terrific and the songwriting in general is busy in a way that feels lively but never obnoxious. The vocal work in the chorus also has a little bit less of the “rocker dude” vibe that I’m not huge into. Probably the best song on the album thus far.

5. “Everything Belongs”

Josh: I’m fairly sure Mark will hate this one, as it’s this album’s version of “Stay with Me” from TBEITBN, a much poppier sound than much of the band’s work. “Everything Belongs” is an arena ballad that relies heavily on piano and sounds as close to Coldplay as any Thrice song you’ll hear, which means your mileage may vary. I think, though, if you removed the vocals completely, this would sound closer to Explosions in the Sky. It’s a song about learning to see how we’re all connected, and that’s earnest in the way It’s a Wonderful Life is. I can see how that won’t be everyone’s jam, but it works for me as an album track consistent with a theme. The line about how “the spaces make the songs” is very apt for this album, which is full of knowing restraint. But, yeah…this song is the clearest giveaway that Dustin spent time during the hiatus playing in a megachurch.

Mark: Hahaha. You’re right. This sucks.

6. “My Soul”

Josh: Really nice guitar tones here, and more of those really clean, controlled melodies from Dustin. I think guitarist Teppei Teranishi might be playing a wurlitzer at points on this one.  This is one of those Thrice songs like “Words in the Water” that you can only describe as beautiful. It’s soulful and melodic, with incredible production and vibes of Sade and Chris Cornell. It’s a love song that balances the desire to be loved with anxieties of being unlovable. There hasn’t been a lyric this year more relatable to me than “What if I’m broken from the start / and what if I never heal?” But like everything on this album, it’s deeply-infused with hope, as demonstrated on the frequent refrain “What if I open up my heart / and somehow we stumble into something real?”

Mark: This one is nice. Good production, nice use of keys, a pretty swell moody-sounding guitar. It totally does sound like Chris Cornell covering Sade or something, actually. I wonder how they’ll pull off these album tracks live. This album is produced-as-hell so far. I think this one includes a stand-up bass. Somehow I doubt they’ll cart one of those out when they play a show.

…don’t mind me, I’m just typing my thoughts.

7. “A Branch in the River”

Josh: Another song that feels more like traditional Thrice, with a chunky bassline and Dustin’s more wailing vocal style. It reminds me of “Backdraft” from the Fire EP, but with very similar imagery to “Words in the Water.” This is a band used to playing mid-sized clubs, but so far every song on Palms sounds like it would be suitable for an arena. The breakdown at 3:19 is a lot of fun, but really brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge—on bass and drums, respectively—bring the house down on this entire song.

Mark: I really like the bass tone that they’re using on this record, and the guy’s work is typically pretty good. I think that the chorus to this song is very fun! A good rock tune overall and it does indeed have a breakdown that will totally make your day. This is good stuff.

8. “Hold Up a Light”

Josh: This is a pretty straightforward rock song, but one that I imagine will be an absolute barn-burner live. It’s another one where Dustin lets loose and his voice feels less controlled, more gravelly. Dustin’s fascination with the elements has gone way back, most notably on the series of element-themed EPs, The Alchemy Index, and he’s going back to that well for the lyrics of “Hold Up a Light.” I’ve often thought of putting together playlists from across the band’s catalogue based on times they cover similar thematic territory. Here, fire represents hope and the will to live and to keep fighting. The line “cities are claimed by the smallest spark” feels like it’s straight out of The Last Jedi, which naturally means a lot of douchebags hate this song.

Mark: I can sing “About A Girl” to this, kind of, so for that reason I like it. Beyond that, this song seems like a good song to point to if you’re ever trying to explain to someone what an “album track” is. Unless I’m wrong and they make this one a single, but surely they wouldn’t. Would they?

“Hold Up A Light” sounds kind of tossed-off, but also includes probably the heaviest metal-inspired flourishes on the record so far. That makes it perfect for getting licensed by some pro wrestler somewhere!

9. “Blood on Blood”

Josh: There’s been a heavy Radiohead influence on Thrice since at least Beggars. That comes through most clearly on this album in “Blood on Blood.” This one would have felt very on brand for the band’s last album, as it’s the song here with the most overt political references, here to foreign policy, refugees, and war. The line, “Don’t have to look in the devil’s eyes or see his infant son / Just like a bolt from the bluest skies, but it’s still blood on blood” makes it feel like a sequel to “Death from Above,” an evocative song about drone bombing. “Blood on Blood” more generally questions the various ways we justify violence, and wonders if peace is possible. Important questions for our time. This song is all-around tight, and the whole band is on point. My only gripe with the album in general comes in this song, and it’s in how the weird little harp breakdown part-way through feels like it’s gearing up for a much heavier section like you get in “For Miles” (from VHEISSU) but instead goes back to more of the same. You do get a really nice vocal bridge towards the end here, where Dustin goes full crooning wail. It’s great.

Mark: When the band kicks in proper on this song, it reminds me a lot of Minus The Bear. Which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Just a thing.

Something about this song has me thinking again about the way that this guy’s vocals sometimes clash with the way that I think that the song ought to sound. I’m not necessarily saying that this would work better with a Thom Yorke croak on top of it, but there’s something incongruous about the sound of this song for me.

The harp section is ridiculous.

10. “Beyond the Pines”

Josh: Thrice has always been solid with choosing album closers, and this is no exception. This is a fucking gorgeous composition, musically and lyrically. This makes a great companion to “Just Breathe,” as it imagines a place to feel at peace, but also in the company of others. Minor spoilers for the second season of Westworld, but the imagery in this song really evokes the scenes of ‘digital heaven’ that were featured in the finale. There’s so much joy in the image—taken from Rumi—of a place “beyond the pines … a field where we can walk / leaving all our names behind.” The phrasing of the lyrics throughout this song is really great, and I love the way it holds back in the first verse and chorus before the second guitar comes in with that airy, emotional sound Teppei is so good at. The whole song feels vulnerable, down to the near-whispered bridge section. This is one of those songs you can put on headphones and lie on the floor and just get lost in.

Mark: One thing about this band that I’ve appreciated since their mid-2000s records is their very good use of baritone guitars. The solitary baritone guitar work that opens up this song sounds just terrific and makes me want to buy a baritone guitar.

As Josh mentioned, this song is an appropriately grand closer. The vocals line up a little better for me here than on some of the other tracks. As a point of personal preference, I feel as though this track kind of peters out in a way that underwhelms me, but its a minor quibble. If they had returned for another huge chorus, I’m sure that I would have found a way to complain about that too.

THE VERDICT

Josh: I said that To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere was the perfect album to capture the tumult of the Trump campaign, a record that fixated on the apocalyptic and the violence of the state, but sought comfort in those we love even as we feared losing them. Palms, written deep into the presidency and a seemingly endless parade of hatred and division, is absent any of its predecessor’s cynicism, leaning instead into the optimism of an idea of utopia, even if that’s in the Undiscovered Country, or the place “beyond the pines.” There was that one great vocal melody on TBEITBN‘s “The Long Defeat,” but Palms is absolutely chock full of moments like that. It’s a record that feels like a balm to a wounded heart, a record brimming with hope that I know I’ll put on regularly when I’m feeling down. It’s a radical departure from their heavier sound, a direction they’ve gone increasingly over the years. But the songwriting continues to be inspired and take chances, even as it feels more focused. I think this is Thrice’s best record since 2009’s Beggars, and I can’t envision a scenario where it’s not in my top ten for the year. Five predictable stars.

Mark: I’m not sure that Thrice will ever be one of my favourite bands. Their early work was a pretty competent take on music that sounds absolutely laughable to modern ears, and what has followed always involves elements that I can really dig into and appreciate, but contains some element that turns me off enough that I keep them at arm’s length. This album is no exception. The tracks that I enjoy the most are, I think, much better than all of their last album, which I did not enjoy very much. There are songs on Palms that might be up there with my favourites from the group, which means that they might wind up living in my Apple Music shuffle list for awhile.

For all of my misgivings, though, I do think that this is a very good Thrice record. The production is largely terrific and there are some tremendous performances. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already heard it. If you’re just a fan of modern rock, Palms is worth your time for at least one spin. Three predictable Markstars.

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