Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Alchemy Index

[Yes, I have become so pathetic that I am letting school essays double as blog posts. Although, this is something I've been meaning to write for a long time, and it was actually going to be a blog post before it found a home as my critical review for my Advanced Composition class. Like most of my blog posts, it's a first, mostly-unedited draft.]

“Tell me are you free?/ Tell me are you free?/ In word or thought or deed/ Tell me are you free?” So begins post-hardcore group Thrice’s opus, The Alchemy Index. This four-CD album, released in Spring 2007 and Fall 2008, is based on the four classical elements—Fire, Water, Earth and Air, with one EP-length CD devoted to each of them. This album was released to wide critical acclaim. Despite the fact that the sound on each volume is different—fire with its decidedly hardcore guitars and screaming vocals, water with its synth and whispered lyrics, air with its, well, airiness, and earth with its acoustic, unplugged sound—the songs hang together remarkably well. They interconnect and build on each other, yet each explores unique territory.

Much has been written on the musical quality of The Alchemy Index; most of the “experts” seem to agree that it is musically rich, and a very unique and special composition. I, personally, am not terribly qualified to comment on the music, apart from my own personal opinion. I do, however, know a bit about literature and what makes good writing, and this is the aspect of The Alchemy Index I intend to examine.

Dustin Kensrue has long been Thrice’s song-writer, and has long been admired as a great lyricist. From uncomfortable guilt-ridden anthems like “Under A Killing Moon,” to the comforting yet still hardcore “Music Box,” he has shown great diversity as well. He is a Christian, and much of his work shows strong Biblical influence, but he is unafraid to draw from other sources as well. (The song “Of Dust and Nations” makes reference to Matthew 6, to the book Children of Dune, to a CS Lewis quote, and possibly to the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem “Ozymandias.”) It should not be surprising, then, that he finds inspiration in a paradigm—the four classical elements—that has inspired many other great poets and songwriters through the years.

The opening words of Volume I: Fire, and indeed the opening song, “Firebreather,” set the tone for the rest of the Index, and introduce one of the major themes running through the album: that of freedom from oppression—not just physical freedom, but mental freedom. “When the gallows stand and bullets lance the bravest lungs/Will I fold my hands and hold my tongue/Or let the flames lick at my feet/ And breath in fire and know I’m free?”

“The Messenger” is one of several songs that take direct Biblical inspiration—this one a musical reformatting of Isaiah 6:

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.
-Isaiah 6:6-8 (KJV)

How can I carry such a heavy burden?
How can I move when I am paralyzed?
I see a fire behind a heavy curtain.
I lean in closer and I close my eyes
and kiss the coals;
breathe in smoke,
and I say, "HERE I AM, SEND ME."
-Thrice, “The Messenger”

The rest of the Fire album deals with similar themes, themes of breaking free from oppression (“Burn the Fleet”), and of being a messenger to a people who will not hear (“The Arsonist”). The disc ends with “The Flame Deluge,” a sonnet set to music, in which fire itself speaks to mankind, lamenting man’s treatment of it: “I feel that I was meant for something more, /My curse, this awful power to unmake./ And ever since you found your taste for war,/ You've forced me onto those whose lives you'd take.” The song’s title is a reference to the book A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, a post-apocalyptic novel in which the world has been destroyed by what the characters call “the flame deluge”—presumably nuclear war of some kind.

Each volume of the Index ends with such a sonnet, with an element of nature berating mankind for one of its numerous faults. Kensrue is not playing with the form here, either, not writing lazy half-fulfilled sonnets in the name of “experimentation” or “fusion.” These are Elizabethan sonnets, written in strict iambic pentameter, with the classic format of four quatrains ending with a couplet. And they show the poetic quality and expression of a truly great lyricist.

The second volume, Water, is a decidedly different twist. This is evident not only in the softer tone of the music, but in the writing as well. Where Fire is very martial, sounding a call to action, Water is more like a lament.

The opening song, “Digital Sea,” is a lament and possibly even an elegy for man in a digital age. It is a song of existentialist despair. “I am drowning in a digital sea/ I am slipping beneath the sound/ Here my voice goes, to ones and zeroes/ I'm slipping beneath the sound.” It contains one of the most significant verses of the album: “And the ghost of Descartes/Screams again in the dark,/ ‘Oh, how could I have been so wrong?’/ But above the screams still the sirens sing their song.” It speaks elegantly of the disconnection man experiences in an age based on “Cogito Ergo Sum,” the ultimate damage a philosophy of pure reason engenders—and, despite this, the enticement that our age holds.

“Lost Continent” questions whether there was ever a golden time, a utopia of any kind (akin to the supposed golden age experienced by the lost continent of Atlantis), and concludes that there never was. “Open Water” contains the chorus, “I’m starting to believe the ocean’s much like you/ Because it gives and it takes away.” Kensrue implicitly compares the ocean to God (“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away), which sets up an interesting paradigm for the concluding sonnet “Kings Upon the Main.”

In this song, the ocean berates man for his foolish pride--“When kings upon the main have clung to pride, /And held themselves as masters of the sea, /I've held them down beneath the crushing tide/ Till they have learned that no one masters me.” Kensrue knows his Scripture, and this sounds like an angry God berating man for his pride—the Tower of Babel comes to mind, among others. If this is true, perhaps the concluding couplet is fitting: “But grace can still be found within the gales;/ With fear and reverence, raise your ragged sail.”

Air is in some ways the simplest, and in other ways the hardest Volume of the Index. It starts with the song “Broken Lungs,” which is an obvious (though poetic) call for new insight into the 9/11 tragedy. Kensrue doesn’t seem to accept the “official story” of what happened that day. Though it has obvious parallels to “Firebreather” and the societal concerns evident throughout the album, this is my least favorite song. It shows what happens when one is too wary of authority, too ready to accept anything but what the government says.

“A Song for Milly Michaelson” is worthy of note here, because it shows the broad range of Kensrue’s influences. This song is inspired by “The Boy Who Could Fly,” a 1986 movie written and directed by Nick Castle. It is about an autistic boy who, well, can fly. The song is written from the boy’s perspective, and uses simple language to create potent imagery—“There's a way where there's a will./ You know I got no need for stairs. /Step out on the window sill,/ Fall with me into the air… I love the night. /Flying o'er these city lights./ But I love you most of all.”

The song “Deadalus” retells the story of the Greek inventor who, reaching for the glory of flight, lost that thing which was most precious to him—his son. This song encapsulates many of the themes of the Index: man’s arrogance, his foolishness, his desire for glory tempered by his penchant for failure.

The final volume, Earth, is perhaps the most biblically-inspired of the entire Index. “Moving Mountains” is based on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…”) “Come All You Weary,” one of the most popular songs on the album, is based on Christ’s words in Matthew 11:28-30. “Digging My Own Grave,” while not directly Biblical, has the tone of a Psalm or a confession of sins, a prayer to God for help—“Lord, don’t I know, I’m just digging my own grave?/ Can someone please save myself from me?”

The final sonnet, “Child of Dust,” is perhaps the best of all the sonnets. The earth, calling itself mother, mourns the way its child (man) treats it. Yet she welcomes man back into her fold when he dies. The final couplet is buried, literally—the sound of earth being piled on top of the microphone muffles the final two lines: “Now safe beneath their wisdom and their feet,/ Here I will teach you truly how to sleep.” The Alchemy Index, a portrait of life, ends appropriately with death.

Not until this final volume do we see what The Alchemy Index ultimately is. It is not a story, it is not a clever conceit, it is not even primarily a cycle of interconnected songs. The Alchemy Index is a portrait, it is a mirror, poetically holding up the looking glass to show us who we are, where we are going, and what we need. It is both an elegy and a call to action. It accuses, it condemns, and it points the way to salvation. It reaches into the past to create a portrait of our modern age, and in creating this portrait, shows us man as he is through all of time.