To emerge from a global pandemic with a renewed sense of situational awareness, hard won insight, and a new album is the kind of move we’ve come to expect from Thrice over the last twenty years. With Horizons/East, Dustin Kensrue and his bandmates address, with candor and courage, the fragile and awkward arrangements that pass for civilization, while inviting us to dwell more knowingly within our own lives. Without surrendering any of the energy and hard edge of their previous albums, they’ve given us a profoundly meditative work which serves as a musical summons to everyday attentiveness.
Since forming Thrice with guitarist Teppei Teranishi, bassist Eddie Breckenridge, and drummer Riley Breckenridge in 1998, Kensrue has never been one to back down from a mental fight. This mood is set by the opening synth-driven number “Color of the Sky,” which sounds well-suited to accompany the closing credits of the Stranger Things season finale. Think Flying Lotus giving way to Elbow and setting the listener down in a new dimension. A self-recorded effort, Horizons/East conveys a palpable sense of danger, determination, and possibility. Scott Evans (Sleep, Kowloon Walled City, Yautja, Town Portal) is on mixing duties, conjuring a landscape of gloom, glow, and glory.
On “Buried in the Sun,” which had the working title of “D.C. Bass,” the band’s fondness for bands like Fugazi and Frodus comes to the fore. In it we learn that there’s a military-industrial complex, a vast apparatus of legal bullying, to take on (I saw the fire on the television/the DoD or the CIA), but the threat to our mental health in acknowledging our own country’s participation in the terror trade is both immersive and interior. The psychic struggle will often come down to what we’re doing with our tools, how we hold what passes before our minds in dreams and on screens. There’s a lot to take in and a lot to be mad about, but Horizons/East invites us to slow tape and see.
Kensrue doesn’t believe, for instance, that Twitter can be blamed for what we bring to it: “It amplifies things. It can exacerbate things. But it isn’t creating anything on its own.” The task, it seems, is to follow the creative impulse into every corner, to hold reality at a better, more righteous angle, lest we misinterpret or project our own chaos on all incoming data. This is where the songs on Horizons/East function as epiphanies through which listeners are invited and equipped to conjure our own. An especially powerful example of this is “Summer Set Fire To Rain.”
“Summer Set Fire to the Rain” is the title, and repeated mantra, of the record’s fifth track. It’s something that popped out as the band was writing one day. “I sang it,” Kensrue recalls, “and thought…Well, that’s beautiful. I’m gonna keep that line.” From there, he applied it to the everyday-somewhere occurrence of getting stuck in the rain as sun shines. “The rain’s coming down and it actually can be beautiful, all these raindrops just lit up by the sun but….if you interpret it a certain way, you’re suffering now…You could miss that moment by worrying about getting wet.” Later, over the already interlacing melodies of guitar, bass and vocals, in the final chorus the band threads a new melody in the mix as Kensrue sings “Don’t you see everything’s interweaving?” It’s a lyrical question that proffers a mystic assertion.
The album itself performs and exemplifies art as a work of recognition, the human task of perceiving oneself amid details, disasters, and blessings as a relentlessly relational phenomenon among others. In this, Horizons/East is the rare rock album (like Peter Gabriel’s So or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?) on which interrelatedness is a theme. As Kensrue explains, this isn’t an accident. “[Interrelatedness is] very important to the way I approach the world and the way I think about things. I really think that not attuning or attending to that interrelatedness is one of the bigger problems in the world. When you don’t see it, you miss the way that the good you do blossoms out and balloons out…the way that the evil you do does as well in the most banal ways.”
That way of conceiving the human situation picks up on a theme at work throughout Thrice’s catalogue, the imagery of sorting through contemporary wreckage, our own as well as the wreckage of others, as nomads, pilgrims, and seers within fallen and failing empires. They pick it up again with second track “Scavengers.”
Overhead, are those angels or vultures
Heavy wings and the hum of decay
They seethe and hover
Skew and smother the light of day
Over a a dark and intricate braiding of guitar and drum grooves, and delivered in a mournful, pleading gravel, these words bring us again to the question of discernment (angels or vultures) in regard to what serves coherence versus what disintegrates and destroys (“They’ve got you wearing a smile with a mask”). For Kensrue, the song’s landscape is and also kind of isn’t a thing of the past. Whether lost in a media diet that is essentially a disinformation pipeline or, relatedly, trapped in fear of a future of eternal conscious pain, Kensrue speaks of “toxic worldviews I once inhabited,” and in truth, “A lot of people that I love are still in that place.” These are bad ideas about ourselves and others that end up, in Kensrue’s words, “clouding the reality in front of them.” How do we engage one another in spite of our stuckness? Can a song get somewhere that an argument can’t.
Kensrue thinks so. “Yes, but it’s so out of your hand, which is good, but it involves a letting go.” This is where Thrice is informed by an ethic laid down by sci-fi novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. Kensrue quotes her fondly, reflecting his commitment to follow suit: “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
That skill, however, is not a call to settle for a posture of appeasement or apathy in regard to our relationship to people in the grip of wicked infrastructures and the terrors they abide. While the album communicates comfort with uncertainty, it’s uncertainty as the beginning of wonder. Not knowing something for certain can occasion a blossom, an opportunity, as opposed to a dead end.
This uncertainty is something the band seems to embrace with their entire career, and especially in their approach to this record, building out their own studio and recording completely on their own, unsure of what exactly they could extract from themselves this time around. Some of the writing even began with open ended challenges that the band laid on themselves like building a song using the quartal chords they found in much of the jazz they loved, or taking the Fibonacci sequence and turning it into a guitar riff. Both of those ideas actually ended up laying the foundation of the song “Northern Lights” that finds the four piece in a new sonic landscape. Thrice seems ever eager to step out into these spaces unknown to them, unsure of where their feet will land, and this new record is no exception.
In Horizons/East, the closed fist meets the open hand. This vision comes through in the art design of Jordan Butcher (who received a Grammy nomination for his work on Caspian’s On Circle). Evoking the imagery of the final scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it prepares the listener for strategy of engagement on offer in “Robot Soft Exorcism.”
The song opens with a strangely breathing yet robotic beat which deftly lures you into its rhythm despite the odd 7/8 time signature. With the beat leading you onward, dig if you will a picture of figure at a command console, looking through and within the eye socket of the head of a giant robot:
Looking down through armored glass
Above a field of fire and ash
Shouting and waving from the ground, a vulnerable individual tries to address the figure on high from below, calling their fellow human out
There’s another way to face the unforeseen
You don’t have to stay inside that machine
There’s a bigger game, and there’s a deeper dream
This call, according to Kensrue, is informed by the late scholar of culture, James Carse, who posited that the infinite play of the infinite game is a living alternative to the finite games of finite players who seek to defeat (or crush) the alleged opposition. In beautiful and unexpected ways Horizons/East takes up this task, the infinite play of the healing game, which Carse laid out. Like an open field, Thrice extends the invitation to better dreams, better behavior, and uncertainty as a guiding light.
By the time we reach “Unitive/East” (which contains a lovely lyrical nod to mewithoutYou), we’re treated to what feels like a cathedral made of piano music and echoes suspended over an abyss. You’ll want to start the transmission over to receive its witness more fully. In this, Horizons/East is like a soundtrack for deeper dreaming. A gift that keeps on giving.