There was no elegiac note to be found in Thrice's New York City appearance last month, despite the Best Buy Theater's digital marquee blaring the decisive words FAREWELL TOUR. Thrice had acknowledged as far back as November this would be the last live run "for the foreseeable future." That knowledge alone, without teary goodbyes and overwrought thanks, imbued the show with significance to spare.
From the outset of Thrice's nearly two-hour performance, there was a palpable, unspoken challenge to the assembled fandom: How loud can you be? How much can you enjoy this? Because you might not get another chance. (Much hinges on that "might"-the band has insisted they'll be on hiatus rather than broken up, but there's a very transparent "let's wait and see" approach at hand.)
The setlist made the excitement easy to share in; a fan-voted jaunt across the group's history began in the present, with "Yellow Belly," the lead off the 2011 opus "Major/Minor," and wove exhaustively, lovingly through everything else. At a Thrice show, you're not taken to all corners of rock-tinged music, but you find yourself visiting quite a few of them -- more than would seem reasonable to expect from a tight ten-year span of studio releases. While other bands have genre-skipped prodigiously within single records, Thrice always made concerted stylistic stands, album by album. Live, the gaps were erased, the mixes and production values equalized. Thrice in concert, on this tour more than ever, was a career on display.
That career -- which feels odd to address in the past tense although it may imminently become appropriate -- was noteworthy, if not awe-inspiring, for its methodical determinism in careening toward individuality. Like the Beatles, Thrice began by capably directing their chops at an established pocket of music. The Irvine, California foursome's early material copped hardcore's dissonant ferocity, punk's tempos and brash idealism, singalongs lifted from the burgeoning emo realm, and the occasional slice of Iron Maiden shred.
Then: "It's, like, experimental rock," a friend and trusted musical adviser told me in the autumn of 2005, referring to Thrice's album 'Vheissu,' a venture that seemed complex from the first glimpse at the verdant, symbol-strewn cover art. If we'd been more familiar with the word "ambient" at that wide-eyed stage in our careers as music obsessives, this friend may have taken a swing at that term. He attempted several more descriptions, all of them swiveling on the word "rock." And despite, or because of, the difficulty to depict 'Vheissu' conversationally, it marked a watershed moment; until now, Thrice had been punk, or hardcore, but never rock.
Thrice embraced the ambiguity of rock, the cultural downshifting of its significance, and sought, with vigorous passion, their place within it. And trite as it sounds, Thrice found themselves. They spent three records crescendoing through an oversaturated sound, peaking in that department on "Artist," and went off the rails from there, writing "Vheissu," then four concept EPs (released as two albums, "The Alchemy Index Vols. I-IV") about the elements, and finally a pair of bold senior theses in "Beggars" and "Major/Minor." Those last two embodied a dual-pronged statement from the band: These are the songs only we can write, played the way only we can play them. Thrice's career was one of the few where a staunch proclamation of "I only like the old stuff" begs, or demands, justification. The old stuff was fast and fun and worthy of praise; then things got revelatory.
Virtuosic musicianship was a hallmark of Thrice, with each member contributing hugely, audibly, and being a memorable participant along the way: Teppei Teranishi is a guitar wiz, and his name is Teppei Teranishi; Eddie and Riley Breckenbridge are brothers, and they hold down the rhythm section accordingly familiarly; Dustin Kensrue is a tender personification of force, and it somehow feels right to just call him Dustin.
Kensrue's roar has been invariably, but inadequately, compared to a lion, a bear, and other clawed quadrupeds. To sufficiently describe both the amplitude and the anger therein, one can recall the technique George Lucas and his minions utilized in voicing Chewbacca, combining the sounds of so many animals to create something unique. When he is bellowing, Kensrue is not only a lion and a grizzly both, but a steaming freight train, a jaguar, a rumbling dumptruck, a father swearing revenge against the one who did his child wrong, and thunder-as-human. (At one point during the NYC performance -- probably in the middle of 'Silhouette' -- it becomes impossible not to imagine Liam Neeson's 'Clash of the Titans' character crying, "Release the Kensrue!")
"Artist in the Ambulance" proved itself not only a milestone and a rite of passage into new territory, but a goldmine of true sentiments. One embodied Thrice as well as any: "There's a difference between sleight of hand and giving everything you have." That the band was aware of that notion every step of the way was never a question.
The "Farewell Tour" ends Tuesday, June 19.