Huzzah and rejoice! Deeper is back! This is a monthly series on celebrating the art that moves us. This month, Chris Yokel talks about getting over his aversion to hardcore and becoming a Thrice fan. (This post has also already cost me ten bucks on iTunes.) As always, go here to find out how to contribute your own!
This is a story that should not have happened. I am a huge music buff, and what’s more I will listen to just about anything. But there was a certain point in my life where I had three types of music that I just could not stand: country, rap, and hardcore. I am still successfully holding the line on country; I will listen to some rap here and there, depending on the song.
Hardcore—now there was something I just could not get. I sounded like a lot of annoying noise and shrieking. What was the point? I couldn’t understand it, didn’t appreciate it, and so I dismissed it.
Well, you know how it works. If you can’t take the enemy by the front, resort to subterfuge. Hardcore snuck in and got me from the side while I was busy listening to Dustin Kensrue play some songs on a guitar in a drab little church hall.
I found out through my friend that Dustin, the lead singer and songwriter for Thrice, was going to be playing a solo show nearby. He was already a huge Thrice fan, and thankfully he was persistent enough that I gave in and went.
After a forgettable and loud opener, Dustin got up there with his guitar. He played a bunch of covers ranging from Elvis Costello to Imogen Heap, but then he also played some songs from his upcoming solo album, and he also played some classic Thrice songs like “The Artist in the Ambulance” and “Stare At The Sun”. I remember being struck by several things: this guy had an awesome voice, he had some really mature and sophisticated spiritual lyrics, and furthermore, he wasn’t part of the contemporary Christian music scene. See, at the time I had become incredibly burned out by the CCM scene. I was tired of the glossy, saccharine, Jesus-must-be-in-every-song music I had been listening to for so long. Not that I didn’t love Jesus or didn’t want to hear about Him, but I just didn’t feel like His name had to be artificially worked into every song for the music to come from a Christian perspective. I also felt like Christian music wasn’t really dealing with some of the darker grit of the world that I was seeing and feeling in my own life. And then I heard Dustin sing lyrics like this:
I sit here clutching useless lists,
Keys for doors that don’t exist
I crack my teeth on pearls
I tear into the history
Show me what it means to me in this world
Yeah, in this world
‘Cause I am due for a miracle
I’m waiting for a sign
I’ll stare straight into the sun
And I won’t close my eyes
Till I understand or go blind
That kind of earnest yearning hit my early twenty-something self right in the gut and spoke to the same feelings I was going through. I knew had to listen to more.
Soon after I got my hands on Vheissu, Thrice’s fifth album, which had released within the previous year. I hit the band at the right time, because Vheissu was the turning point from their strict hardcore/post-hardcore (which probably would have turned me off at the outset) into a more melodic hardcore/experimental rock. Here again I was just blown away by the incredible lyricism. Vheissu opens up with “Image of the Invisible”:
We’re more than carbon and chemicals
Free will is ours and we can’t let go
We can’t allow this, the quiet cull
So we sing out this, our canticle
We are the image of the invisible
Here was philosophy, emotion, and Scripture all rolled into one, and set to incredible music. As I continued to listen, I couldn’t help but be amazed. Thrice weaved together elements like the writings of C.S. Lewis and the stories of Jonah and Peter into a stirring cry to wake up, break the chains of the world from your arms, and step into the light: “Put your faith in more than steel/Don’t store your treasures up, with moth and rust/Where thieves break in and steal/Pull the fangs from out your heel/We live in but a shadow of the real.” In lyrics like this I saw both the darkness around me but also the hope in front of me.
And I finally got all that yelling—or at least the use Thrice puts it to. Like any good tool, Dustin uses it for good purpose, to convey emotion and intensity. I can’t imagine “Like Moths To Flame” the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, being sung without Dustin screaming out the lyrics, “And something in me dies, the night that I betrayed my king.”
With each new release, The Alchemy Index, Beggars, and Major/Minor, my admiration for Thrice and for Dustin Kensrue’s songwriting ability has only grown. One of amazing things about Thrice is that they combine a high level of artistic creativity with deep lyrical content. This is, again, something I found lacking in the Christian music world at the time (although I think it is getting better). Just listen to The Alchemy Index, a sprawling four-disc musical journey in which the band ranges from raging guitars to electronica to straight out acoustic, with each disc sonically defined by one of the four elements, and you’ll understand the sheer creative genius that Thrice is capable of. They are a band that has pushed and evolved themselves with every record, and as a serious fan of music I can’t help but applaud that desire for excellence.
One thing that I continue to stand in a sort of puzzled amazement over is how, as an artist, Dustin Kensrue commands such huge respect as a musician, and yet is so explicit about his faith in his songwriting. I have seen crowds of half-sloshed, moshing fans singing along to every word of songs that Dustin was basically quoting from Scripture. Maybe they just weren’t aware? It’s not like Dustin was hiding anything. I don’t really understand how it works. I just sort of smile in bemusement and sing along. But I will say that Dustin’s integrity in all this has always impressed me. He’s just a guy who loves Jesus and is serious about his faith, but is also serious about his music and being the best artist he can be.
I remember hearing a quote from musician and legendary producer T. Bone Burnett that really struck me. He said, “You can sing about the Light, or you can sing about what you see because of the Light.” It seems to me that Dustin Kensrue and Thrice have found a way of collapsing both of those together in a way that is rarely seen, and makes me slightly envious as a songwriter. Ultimately though, I can’t help but stand in admiration and thankfulness for how their music continues to shape me down to the core.
Chris Yokel is a poet, musician, and writer on art, creativity, and beauty. His current projects include a new poetry collection, A Year in Weetamoo Woods and two EPs, as well as teaching college students that English is awesome. Follow his blog and support his poetry and music at ChrisYokel.com.