If 2002 was the year for rough-and-tumble garage rock, 2003 saw the rise of the earnest and emotional screamer. And really, the pet names for the genre were way more fun than lots of the music itself. Extremo, Screamo, Mainstreamo, etc.... I enjoyed them. Led by such talented acts as Thursday and Cursive, this genre made a huge impression on the disaffected youth of the country, bringing a much-needed sense of honesty and passion to stereos, and stages. A host of other bands filled out the ranks of this burgeoning genre -- bands like Alkaline Trio, Vendetta Red, A.F.I., Coheed and Cambria, Yellowcard, Brand New, Thrice, Senses Fail, and Taking Back Sunday. From the softer side of the genre, we got new releases from Dashboard Confessional and Saves the Day. This is quite the roster. Some of 'em are even good bands.
Thrice comes in towards the front of the pack. Released in July of 2003, Thrice's Island Records debut, The Artist in the Ambulance, is intense, concise, and brutal hardcore punk. Hailing from Orange County, California, the band's been together since the late '90s. The quartet recorded a demo described on the website as being "a turd disguised as a shiny disc that can be read by lasers". In 2001, they released their debut full-length Identity Crisis on Sub City Records. The follow-up, Illusions of Safety came along a year later, and by the summer of 2002, the band had inked a deal with Island Records. This remarkably quick success didn't just come from being in the right place at the right time. Doubtless, that had something to do with it, but mainly, this band has made it happen by relentlessly touring and recording. Thrice has shared the stage with everyone from Brand New, to Hot Rod Circuit, to Further Seems Forever and Midtown. Also, a few dates on the Vans Warped tour didn't hurt the cause. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth, especially involving punk rock and easily accessible downloads. The Artist in the Ambulance debuted in the Top 20 on Billboard's Top 200, and the single "All That's Left" was all over modern rock radio this past summer.
This album boasts more than just three chords, lots of guttural screaming, and heavy-handed drumming. The Artist in the Ambulance -- aside from having a cool title -- has 12 surprisingly varied tracks. "Cold Cash and Colder Hearts" is an abrasive start to the record with loud and heavy guitar work from Teppei Teranishi and tight harmonies from singer Dustin Kensrue. However, the majestic strings towards the end of the track provide a beautifully distinguished contrast to the harshness of the vocals.
I found "Under a Killing Moon" to be rather amusing because Teranishi's playing has such a classic metal edge. Bassist Eddie Breckenridge provides a thudding backbone to the track, while Teranishi channels early Metallica in his riffs. Kensrue's voice almost disappears in the huge sound the band produces on this track.
The single, "All that's Left", deserved to be a summertime hit. Bursting with urgency and adrenalin, the guitars careen from start to finish at a breakneck pace. Kensrue's words are nostalgic and earnest, indicative of an impressive lyrical prowess still in the works: "A ghost is all that's left / Of everything we swore we never would forget / We tried to bleed the sickness / But we drained our hearts instead / We are the dead". Lovely as that sounds, the song is actually a lot of fun, appropriate for late-night car rides down the California coast.
"Stare at the Sun" is the most melodic track on The Artist in the Ambulance, with ambient guitar work that provides a haunting undercurrent to a song all about comprehending a rough set of circumstances: "'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 / 'Til I understand or go blind".
This is a recurring theme on the record: understanding the situations in which we find ourselves. Kensrue writes fast-paced, intense accounts of life's ups and downs, and the band backs him up with equally intense instrumental versions of his musings. At a time when formerly underground punk bands are receiving the publicity and exposure they deserve, Thrice has achieved what hundreds of thousands of kids dream about in their basements every night: a successful major-label debut, a spot on the Warped Tour, and the feeling that the angst of youth is worth something to a nationwide audience. Congratulations to Thrice and other bands in the genre for bringing Would-be Punks -- as well as a more mainstream audience -- an honest and engaging form of expression and art.