From the moment Thrice emerged, the band threw wrenches in traditional genre tropes. Hardcore guitars? Meet emo vocals. Post-punk rhythms? Say hello to metal riffs. The group’s first two albums, 2000’s Identity Crisis and 2002’s The Illusion of Safety, introduced them to the tight-knit hardcore community, but also attracted math rock devotees and Warped Tour fans ready to belt out singer Dustin Kensrue’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics. So when the band made the jump to Island – a major label – it was unclear what would happen. Would Thrice maintain their sound? Or would the edges be inevitably sanded down in pursuit of something more immediately palatable?
Fans shouldn’t have worried. 2003’s breakthrough, The Artist in the Ambulance, showcased the band essentially doing more of what worked so well previously. Indeed, the dizzying, interplaying guitar lines of the title track give hints of metal undertones, while the melodic line and backing vocals are pure emo. “Paper Tigers” is undeniable hardcore metal, built around the militaristic pummel of double bass drum kicks and pained screams from Kensrue. But beneath this surface, the band can’t help but yank the tablecloth with riffs built on unexpected time signatures that would make Robert Fripp proud.
Thrice were essentially granted full creative freedom, but they didn’t have a lot of time. Given only a few months to write and record songs – with the aim of getting the album out before a huge summer of touring – it led to moments where things like the megaphone on “All That’s Left” getting added “literally ten minutes before we had to FedEx the song to be mixed,” according to producer Brian McTernan. (The group revisited the album in 2023, recording new versions of the songs.)
The freedom extended to the album’s presentation: In a nod to their love of old jazz records, an initial pressing of the album included track descriptions for each song that explained inspirations and instrumentation. And the band was able to continue their tradition of donating proceeds from the album’s sales to a charity. (In this case, it was The Syrentha J. Savio Endowment.)
In the end, much of the success of The Artist in the Ambulance comes down to a band holding true to their ideals. In a 2003 interview with Lollipop Magazine, guitarist Teppei Teanishi reflected on where the band’s constant strive for reinvention was born. “We all listen to so many different kinds of music, it’s what we had to do…When we were coming up, we’d play a local club called Chain Reaction, and they’d put us on every kind of bill imaginable.” he explains. “We played with skate punk, emo, hardcore, metal, and pop punk bands…It was cool to play in front of all these different crowds.” With The Artist in the Ambulance, Thrice created an album that brought all these different fans into their orbit, not the other way around.