To celebrate Thrice‘s recent re-release of three previous albums on vinyl – Vheissu, The Red Sky EP and The Artist in the Ambulance – we took a trip back in time to check out the band’s classic The Artist in the Ambulance all over again, and analyse what made it such an iconic and important record…
WORDS: MATTHEW WILSON
Like most early 00s emo albums, Thrice’s major label debut ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’ was born out of confusion, split identities, conflicting perspectives on life struggling to coexist within the same artistic frame. The third wave of emo saw a shift in attitude, with artists moving further away from the DIY ideals of punk rock that had birthed their scene and towards more radio friendly, commercialised music. Acts focused less on social issues and more on the ferocious melodrama of personal emotion. The tension between bands and fans desperately seeking a sense of deeper community, whilst the scene simultaneously diverged, both musically and commercially, from its punk rock origins, led to some great art, but it was rarely addressed by bands at the time through their music or actions within the scene.
“a musical battering ram of confident, diverse and challenging compositions”
Not so with Thrice. Thrice were a band who were aware of this tension and their place within the scene from the start, and, from the start, made a conscious effort to have a positive effect with their art. Even as a small underground band, struggling to break even, Thrice dedicated 5% of ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’s sales to a charity set up in the memory of a friend lost to cancer. Whilst other bands may have revelled in the excess of the scene, Thrice were uncomfortable with doing so, and set about creating art that spoke beyond them as individuals.
Where ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’ stands apart from most other emo records of the time is in its disinterest of the personal melodramas of other emo records, focusing its attention on social and political events rather than breakups and ex-girlfriends. Opener ‘Cold Cash and Colder Hearts’ is an assault on American privilege and indifference to suffering around the world, a bold move in the context of early 00s America, where post 9/11 patriotism was still high. ‘Stare At The Sun’ wrestles with Kensrue’s conflict between his Christian faith and his role as a burgeoning rock star, seeing “the parts but not the whole”, unable to distinguish between going blind and enlightenment – is the fame and success of the scene something that will bring him happiness, or will he lose his sight because of it? There’s still pain on this record, a whole lot of angst and confusion – but it’s confusion that is directed against outward sources from inner tension, raging against social injustice rather than personal slights.
But whilst this record threatens to tear itself apart lyrically, ‘The Artist In The Ambulance’ is a musical battering ram of confident, diverse and challenging compositions. Thrice are at their strongest when they ramp everything up as loud as possible, smashing thrash metal riffs over hardcore rhythm sections, especially in the crushing ‘Blood Clots and Black Holes’ built around a technically-challenging Metallica riff that weaves in and out of breakdowns.
“the constant hunger the band had to push at its own tensions and experiment musically led to Thrice evolving into the unique band they are today”
This is also an album that saw Thrice expand melodically – the aforementioned ‘Stare At The Sun’ blends together an earworm bass riff with restrained guitars, providing an emotionally charged musical foundation for Kensrue’s yearning vocals to soar over. And in the context of the band’s later career, it’s in these moments of quiet restraint and skillful experimentation that you can make out the genesis of Thrice’s later sprawling masterpieces ‘Vheissu’ and ‘The Alchemy Indexes’.
The centerpiece of the album is the title track, constantly playing with the idea of the responsibilities of artistry against its social context, whilst bringing together the same melodic and lyrical evolution present on this record. There are two artists present in the ambulance, Kensrue and the medic who keeps his body whole following a car crash. The selfish nature of rockstar excess in what we’d consider an ‘artist’ is contrasted against the artistry present in healing hands of his unnamed saviour. Ultimately, it causes a revelation – Kensrue wants his scene and himself to be “more than just lights and flashing sounds”, more than spectacle, more in touch with the original community based values of punk. This desire for purpose and greater meaning chased Kensrue for years, both in and out of his role in the emo scene; when Thrice took a hiatus, Kensrue’s full time occupation was to work as a worship pastor, creating art that he saw serving a greater need than himself – his community.
‘The Artist In The Ambulance’ is a missing link, both in Thrice’s career and for the scene as a whole. It thrusted Thrice’s unique blend of post-hardcore and emo onto the mainstage of Warped Tour and helped carve out a space for other, heavier bands such as Thursday and Glassjaw to exist within the scene as well. And by focusing on social issues instead of interpersonal drama, it also expanded the lyrical themes of the scene to be beyond just individuals. But more than this initial impact, the constant hunger the band had to push at its own tensions and experiment musically led to Thrice evolving into the unique band they are today, paving the way for more experimentation in pursuit of something more. “I will touch the sun, or die trying,” Kensrue croons in the bridge of ‘The Melting Point Of Wax’. With this album, Thrice took flight.