Album Review: Thrice – Horizons / East

[Epitaph; 2021]

For most of their career, Californian quartet Thrice have continuously pushed boundaries and expectations. They started as straight-up screaming post-hardcore on their 2000 debut Identity Crisis, but eventually incorporated more melodic singing as lead songwriter Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics took on weightier subject matter.

This progressive approach resulted in 2003’s The Artist in the Ambulance, a leaf-turning record and a watershed moment for the emo scene that remains arguably the band’s greatest achievement. The concepts present were meant to push the band in a different, more conscious direction, something that others in the genre weren’t interested in doing. From there they tackled global issues like child poverty on the quasi-experimental Vheissu, and crafted an elemental concept double album with The Alchemy Index, each element incorporating various genres they were toying with, like roots rock and Americana.

Through all of these iterations from the 2010s, Thrice amassed a cult following. They grew out of their hardcore upbringing and drifted into more progressive atmosphere – at least until 2018’s fall from grace Palms, a hopelessly dull alt-rock detour that came after a solid post-hiatus reunion album in 2016’s To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere.

The expectation with their latest album, Horizons / East is that Thrice would course-correct and shake off that hollowness, but that isn’t entirely the result. While a marked improvement over Palms, Horizons / East doesn’t do away with the alt-rock shenanigans, but they do refine them to make them slightly more palatable.

As clichéd as it is now, Horizons / East is a reflection on a pandemic year, with an emphasis on political strife in songs like “Buried in the Sun”, which attempts to criticize the United States for its meddling in foreign governments. While there’s definitely merit in that criticism, Thrice breach the subject like the very politicians they are pointing at, with half-hearted soundbites like “I saw the fire on the television / The DOD or the CIA? / If we’re the cops, then the world’s our prison / 2-4-6-8, USA!”

Thrice have grown up considerably from the old days, of course, but, as a result, their music is no longer as exciting, as they rest comfortably in their own ‘illusion of safety’, aka the idea that they can do no wrong at this point. It’s a bulletproof vest to them, so they litter Horizons / East with minor experimentations masquerading as breaking new ground. On the awkwardly-titled “Summer Set Fire to the Rain”, a faux-metal riff that’s been shopped around by Mastodon for a decade stands as the most unique aspect of the song, even if Kensrue resurrects his screaming voice for a moment.

Speaking of Kensure, his vocals have matured with a haggard effect, implying a near auto-pilot approach to Horizons / East. Thrice have always been able to illicit excitement in their music, but, just as with Palms, this particular set of songs feels mostly lifeless. Hooks are in abundance, naturally, as on the single “Scavengers”, which will likely be the only song from this album still being played on tours a few years down the line. But it’s snoozers like penultima track “Dandelion Wine” that make Horizons / East feel forgettable. Here, Kensrue’s narration mopes about while his supporting rhythm section just coasts towards a predictable lackluster finale.

There’s an obvious hole in the songwriting of Kensure on Horizons / East. He’s toned down the religious allegories and uplifting in a quest for deeper meaning in his reflections on existence – a quest that leads towards the truth but never quite reaches it. On paper, Horizons / East sounds like a return to form, but in the end, this is all miles from what Thrice were doing a decade ago, a time when they were somewhat impervious to criticisms thanks to their impassioned fanbase. However, that sun they used to stare at has set, and Thrice are going to have to try a little bit harder next time.