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By David Von Bader
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And like the subject it tackles, the actual music of "Friends in the Armed Forces" offers no easy solutions — the keyboard/guitar interplay that starts as the perfect pad for screaming turns into a spare backbone without warning. Together, it packs an emotional and intellectual punch that makes it hard for cynics to dismiss.
The interplay of lyrics and music continues throughout Common Existence. "Time's Arrow" takes the reverse-chronology technique of Martin Amis' novel of the same title, describing tears running up someone's face, stitches being pulled out of a wound, snowflakes falling up into the sky. And underneath, a creepy, backwards-effect strummed guitar seems to suck everything back into ominous oblivion. (Thank, here, the studio wizardry of album producer Dave Fridmann, whose atmosphere-creating chops were honed with his work for his band Mercury Rev as well as with the Flaming Lips.)
Rickly is glib about his dog-eared personal library and its potential for connection with his favored sonic mode. "Post-hardcore is the magical realism of music," he says. "Instead of trying to strip things down to the bare bones, I think that instead, it sometimes verges on the surreal, the psychedelic. If you're trying to portray the world as you know it, that's almost somebody like Borges or Marquez or another one of the South American writers."
He's eager to point out traces of his favorite writers all over Common Existence. David Foster Wallace's trademark parallel narratives show up in "Circuits of Fever," with its most important story interlaced with the bigger, larger noise of the verses. Barry Hannah and Don DeLillo influenced the interconnecting thematic threads of the album as a whole, Rickly says, also citing healthy helpings of Thomas Pynchon and William Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories.
Under all this, Rickly's bandmates have also rummaged through the post-modernist's bag of tricks. Guitarist Keeley is an avowed fan of the stoner wall-of-sound waves from 1990s Brit acts like the Jesus and Mary Chain, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, and Spiritualized. The nods to these bands come randomly, without warning — "Circuits of Fever" takes almost three minutes to build into an echoing, psychedelic trip to rival the best so-called "sonic cathedrals" of near-yesteryear. It's downright pretty in its subdued squall and will surprise Anglophiles who would otherwise never examine the racket of a bunch of Jersey guys.
But despite all these zigs and zags from the more obvious elements of what gained Thursday its initial popularity, Rickly insists he has never abandoned his hardcore-derived heritage: "It still feels like it's rooted in all these time changes and sort of guitar riffs and stuff that I loved from hardcore music when I was a kid." Rather, he sees his mission as similar to that of musicians who arrived after punk's first 1970s peak — to pick up the pieces, and, à la 1980s post-punk, create a new collage from them. "If more people kind of genuinely put that kind of creativity into something that grew out of hardcore, it would be an amazing thing. Post-punk was this very great movement in music. And I think post-hardcore could be something cool like that."
Those who got what made the band so special at the beginning will continue to get it, Rickly says, citing Sonic Youth as a model for longevity and artistic creativity through the occasional dip into mainstream recognition. "I think that our tastes in music have become more and more oblique and sort of harder to understand in weird, esoteric choices we make," he says. "But I think the people who really love Thursday really appreciate that about us."Read the full Q&A with Rickly at BrowardPalmBeach.com.