Review Summary: While not atrocious overall, "The Artist in the Ambulance" is overrated and mediocre, and doesn't deserve the mountains of acclaim that it receives.
Thrice, a post-hardcore band from California, are one of the most highly respected bands in their genre. Early in their career, they established a sound that can best be described as a mix of melodic hardcore and post-hardcore. However, with their 2005 album “Vheissu”, a colossal stylistic change had been made to their sound; they shifted from their purely melodic/post-hardcore tendencies and began to experiment with genres such as progressive rock, by adding more atmosphere and depth to their arrangements. Some prefer the older, more intense style, while others would rather listen to the more artistic and varied approach of efforts such as “Vheissu” or “Beggars”. This album, “The Artist in the Ambulance”, while still a solid post-hardcore record with snippets of fantastic lyricism, receives way too much glorification, as it’s sometimes droning and arid nature makes it less valuable then their previous effort, the much more energetic “The Illusion of Safety”, and their opus, the musically sophisticated “Vheissu”. While I may not be an expert in the post-hardcore genre, I can safely say that there are many superior alternatives that are much more enjoyable than the middling “Artist in the Ambulance”.
While “The Artist in the Ambulance” has many duds, such as its overall absence of variety, that doesn’t mean it lacks some thrilling moments here and there. “The Abolition of Man”, which is possibly the strongest tune on the entire album, features a unique collection of riffs that differ from other songs. The arrangement of the song itself is much more multifaceted and appealing than other arrangements on the album; the intro features layered dual leads that gradually overlap until the song bursts into a belligerent assault led by the volcanic guitar riffs and screaming vocals. The bridge of the song, which takes place within the last minute, features a distinct, middle-eastern-esque (for lack of a better term) guitar riff that stands out as the most interesting moment on the album, along with intro to the radiant “Stare at the Sun” and the spacey outro to “Don’t Tell and We Won’t Ask”. Another excellent song, the title track, is a lyrical work of genius about the ability of field medics and the ‘magic’ they do to save lives; they give the injured a ‘second chance’, and possibly that they are angels of earth. The song also has an incredibly catchy intro that I find myself humming constantly. “The Melting Point of Wax” is the only other song on this entire album that really stands out; the lyrics are actually easy to distinguish, (compared to almost every other song on the album, where the lyrics and attempts at pitch variation are muffled by the incessant whines), and the guitar riffs/bass lines are dense enough to entertain. Unfortunately, these key tracks are the only truly valuable offerings on the entire CD, as the other tracks tend to intermingle as a single cliché pop song.
The biggest fluke on this album is the lack of diversity among songs; almost every song follows the same annoying pattern. The most noticeable lack of variation is amid the choruses of every song on the album; every song features a chorus where the vocals are slightly elevated in pitch for that ‘catchy/poppy’ effect, while being accompanied by some cliché chord progression in the background that would bore any true musician such as myself. (These same cliché chord progressions can be found in many verses throughout the album as well). Every chorus it to trite for its own good, and can annoy one to the point of musical suicide through multiple listens. While not a major issue individually, by the end of the album, every track seems the same, every chorus seems to mix with every other chorus to form a single, poppy, nauseating super-chorus, and what makes it worse are the vocals that are singing those choruses. While lead singer Dustin Kensrue has definitely been improving over his career, his sub-par screams and awkward clean vocals (though he does have his moments) plague this album, and sometimes ruin the subtle instrumental intricacies present on some of the tracks, and keep certain points of musical interest from being fully appreciated. These intricacies, such as the masterful use of strings in songs like “Cold Cash and Colder Hearts” and “The Melting Point of Wax”, or the atmospheric sound effects in songs like “Stare at the Sun” are usually ruined by the fact that the song itself probably has an insufferable chorus accompanied by immature vocals and laughable progressions. In other words, what is sometimes magnificent musically is drowned out by infuriating choruses and bothersome vocal pitches that could remind one of Fall Out Boy or All Time Low. Obviously, while this album does have a few slabs of musical genius and uniqueness here and there, and has the potential to be an excellent post-hardcore album, unfortunately, the good can be wickedly overshadowed by the bad. If the songs stood out from each other, and offered just a little more consistent variation, this record could be fantastic.
Besides the sometimes insipid and repetitive nature of the album, “The Artist in the Ambulance” has another minor blunder. Compared to almost every other Thrice album, this particular record seems inferior. Their previous effort, “The Illusion of Safety”, while lacking in interesting experimentation, was much more dynamic and raw, and was a little more bearable throughout. More experimental albums like “Vheissu” and “The Alchemy Index Volumes 1-4” were (in my opinion) better because of their maturity and intriguing experimentation.
To conclude, it may seem like I’m making “The Artist in the Ambulance” out to be an atrocious record, while, despite being annoying and monotonous in its moments, never really seems like a terrible album. Sure, those irksome choruses and adolescent vocals are a big part of what I took away from this record, but I also consider its extraordinary highlight tracks and sometimes brilliant lyrics. (The lyrics are a huge part of why this just earns the 3/5). While an overhyped album that sometimes sweats post-hardcore mediocrity, in the end, it offers just enough to earn a 3/5. “The Artist in the Ambulance” had all the potential to be a dazzling post-hardcore album; it has interesting lyrical content, catchy riffs and a good balance between light and heavy themes for each song (despite them all being monotonous enough in their choruses to almost completely eradicate that balance). If you are looking for a phenomenal gem for post-hardcore, you won’t find it here, but what you will find, if you dig deep enough, is a solid attempt with a few marvelous key songs.
“The Melting Point of Wax”
“The Abolition of Man”
“The Artist in the Ambulance”
“Stare at the Sun”