With the tour which brought them to the The Palladium in Worcester on Friday night (February 7), Thrice are celebrating the 15th anniversary of their album Vheissu. This is slightly ridiculous and contrived, as no one ever celebrates the 15th anniversary of anything, but that doesn’t change the fact that this record was an achievement well worth looking back on fondly.
After forging an unlikely alliance between thrash metal, screamo, and pop-punk on their first three albums, Thrice reinvented themselves on Vheissu as cerebral, introspective art-rockers. They hired British producer Steve Osborne, who usually worked with sonically audacious alt-rockers like Happy Mondays, Placebo, and Elbow. They wrote heavy-hearted piano ballads and draped them in tasteful electronic percussion. They made sure that even the thundering post-hardcore anthems which felt like a natural extension of their prior work incorporated some unexpected trickery: Morse code, perhaps, or a tinkling music box. They collaborated with Dave Eggers on the artwork and gave the whole thing a title which referenced Thomas Pynchon!
It should have been an unlistenable, ponderous mess. Instead, it became the defining work of Thrice’s career, setting a new standard for their more ambitious peers in the emo scene. I’d say they’ve earned the right to celebrate Vheissu on whatever arbitrary occasion they wish — especially when they’re sweetening the deal with opening sets from two exciting young bands and one of their most esteemed peers.
Batting leadoff on this night was Holy Fawn, an intriguing outfit whose massive, glacial compositions found the previously unexplored liminal space between black metal, shoegaze, dream-pop, and post-rock. These are all genres of immense yet sublimated passion, and as each song slowly gained mass until, suddenly, it seemed to fill the room, it was as if some unspeakable evil was exiting the bodies of the musicians on stage. Much of Holy Fawn’s otherworldly power can be attributed to singer/guitarist Ryan Osterman, whose hypnotic, ethereal vocals could transform into harrowing black metal shrieks at a moment’s notice.
Drug Church seemed the product of a much simpler genre fusion: What if a melodic punk band had a hardcore frontman? The magnetic Patrick Kindlon bellowed and gesticulated like a Henry Rollins understudy, but his bandmates’ catchy, charging attack was so damn fun that he couldn’t help but spew his invective while sporting the world’s biggest grin. This is the kind of group that can get even the hardcore-agnostic into the pit, so it’s to Kindlon’s credit that he took a minute between songs to school us on proper moshing etiquette (instead of punching, try just “throw[ing] each other against each other, like fish”). He also took a minute to talk about nasal hair waxes, but that’s just because he’s a weird, funny dude — the kind of songwriter whose idea of a dynamite chorus is “Pay shit rates, get shit labor / I should have started a chemical fire!”
MewithoutYou recently announced their intention to retire the band by 2020’s end, which only makes their every remaining live show that much more precious. Singer Aaron Weiss has a stage presence like no other, falling to his knees, twirling across the stage, or rubbing his guitar against his face as he wrestled with theology and anxiety in convoluted spoken-word monologues where the words were screamed as often as they were spoken. All the while, the band simmered and boiled in sync with Weiss, meditative one minute and ferocious the next. At times, songs seemed to bleed into each other, but rather than make the set feel monotonous, it lent it the feel of an epic, unified work. Besides, the radiant wordless chorus of mid-set highlight “Bethlehem, WV” proved that mewithoutYou could be a successful, relatively conventional indie-rock band if they wanted to — but hasn’t it been so much more fulfilling watching them forge their own path?
“We’re Thrice, and this is Vheissu.” So said singer/guitarist Dustin Kensrue after the opening call-to-arms of “Image of the Invisible,” and that direct, fanfare-free declaration set the tone for the album performance that followed. Kensrue didn’t address the crowd again until Vheissu was complete, while the lighting kept the band member’s faces mostly cloaked in shadow. This lack of distraction just made it easier to marvel at the unbelievable musicianship on display; the four-piece nailed the record’s every note, and their precision came with no loss of firepower. Many 2000s screamo vocalists have long lost the ability to unleash their signature howls, but Kensrue’s screams were only ever-so-slightly tamer than the originals. The band shone just as brightly in their less bombastic moments, with guitarist Teppei Teranishi’s piano intro to “For Miles” just one particularly impressive example.
Though all of the little flourishes on Vheissu, from the Morse code to the music box, were present and accounted for, what really shone through in the live setting was the rousing, everyone-shout-the-chorus-together quality of so much of the album. With the exception of the two ballads, “Atlantic” and “Red Sky” (both of which sounded gorgeous on this night), pretty much every song, no matter how many twists and turns it took to get there, eventually got to an exhortative, fists-in-the-air refrain. The crowd was more than happy to participate at these moments, and even went the extra mile by throwing up crowd surfers for pretty much every song — yes, even for “Red Sky.” Full-album performances can feel a bit sterile and anticlimactic, but neither band nor audience was about to let Vheissu suffer that fate.
Thrice followed Vheissu with a handful of the record’s b-sides. While these songs mostly sounded like, well, Vheissu b-sides, the punky energy of “Lullaby” felt like a bridge connecting Vheissu to the album that preceded it, The Artist in the Ambulance. This left only time enough for three songs from the post-Vheissu years: “Circles” was muted and contemplative, a nice breather after the extremely intense Vheissu; “Black Honey,” the band’s biggest hit to date, was about as good as radio-friendly hard rock gets; and “Words in the Water” ended the night with one last big power ballad.
Rarely does one get to see four truly great, unique bands in the same night. It may only be February, but I already have a pretty strong contender for concert of the year.