Thrice’s ‘The Illusion of Safety’ turns 20 – a pillar of 21st century post-hardcore
This edition of 'In Defense of the Genre' looks at the 20th anniversary of a key pillar of 21st century post-hardcore, Thrice's 'The Illusion of Safety.'
As bands like Glassjaw and Thursday were leading a post-hardcore revolution on the outskirts of New York City; Irvine, California's Thrice were doing a similar thing on the West Coast. Having formed in 1998 and self-released a demo the following year, they ended up hitting the studio with producer Paul Miner (of Death by Stereo) for their debut album Identity Crisis, which came out in 2000 on the newly-formed Greenflag Records. While their East Coast compatriots were making music that was clearly rooted in New York hardcore, Thrice had a distinct West Coast flair, making a style of post-hardcore that pulled from SoCal skate punk and Bay Area thrash. They also owed more to the burgeoning wave of At The Gates-inspired metalcore than most post-hardcore/emo bands and more to pop punk and emo than most metalcore bands. You could spend all day picking apart the various ingredients of Thrice's sound, but as far back as their very first album, they showed off the ability to fuse them all into something that was wholly unique.
It didn't take long for the music world to realize that Thrice was onto something, and just months after Identity Crisis' release, they got picked up by Hopeless/Sub City, who re-released the album in early 2001, and then they hit the studio with producer Brian McTernan (who had previously worked with Converge, Cave In, Snapcase, Piebald, Texas Is The Reason, and more) for its followup, The Illusion of Safety. The album would prove to be Thrice's breakthrough album, spark major label interest in the band, and it would go on to help define the early 2000s post-hardcore boom. It turns 20 today.
As promising as Identity Crisis was, The Illusion of Safety was a massive leap forward. It fused Thrice's myriad of influences far more seamlessly than its predecessor, and it found the band pushing themselves further than ever in a variety of different directions. It was tougher and heavier than anything Thrice had released previously, more strongly embracing their hardcore, metalcore, and thrash influences while toning down the skate punk vibes. But it was also catchier and more inviting than the band's earlier work. Identity Crisis standouts like "Phoenix Ignition" and the title track suggested Thrice had some anthems up their sleeves, but The Illusion of Safety blew them both away, time and time again. Right from the start of album opener "Kill Me Quickly," you knew this was a band with something to say. It starts off rivaling the hardest, rawest bands of '90s metalcore, before turning into an emo-pop crowdpleaser with shreddier lead guitar than you would've gotten from any other emo-pop band. And that's just in the first 30 seconds.
On The Illusion of Safety, Thrice presented themselves as the full package. Not only were they at the right place at the right time, with an onslaught of instantly-satisfying songs that would endure for the next 20 years and counting, they were (and still are) one of the strongest, most tight-knit, most efficient bands this scene ever produced. Save for a three-year hiatus in the early 2010s, Thrice have been at it for over two decades with the exact same four-piece lineup, and each member is crucial. At the forefront is Dustin Kensrue, a commanding vocalist who can really sing and really scream, and whose lyrics and melodies have helped foster a connection between this band and their diehard fanbase for years. Next to him is Teppei Teranishi, a lead guitarist who gives any technical metal band a run for their money, but who never gets too showy and always puts melody above anything else. Holding down the rhythm section are brothers Eddie (bass) and Riley (drums) Breckenridge. Not only does Eddie give the band their thunderous low end, he can also get as tech-y and melodic as Teppei when the song calls for it. And if Dustin is Thrice's heart and soul, then Riley is its spine, a hard hitter who can dish out busy, complex fills but also knows when less is more. Thrice may not have had as many big hits as other bands during the emo boom, but of all the major bands in that scene, they remain the most forceful live band. That power and chemistry was as evident on The Illusion of Safety as it is today.
The big bang of "Kill Me Quickly" lets you know off the bat that Thrice mean business, and The Illusion of Safety keeps growing from there. You could put any of today's thrash metal revival bands up against the riffs in "A Subtle Dagger" or "Where Idols Once Stood" and watch them cower, and you could do the same with "To Awake and Avenge the Dead" and metalcore. At the same time, how many emo/pop punk bands in that era were given major label budgets and big-name producers and still couldn't write a hook as catchy as "See You In the Shallows"? (The answer is a lot.) The album is constantly putting monster riffage and badass screams against timeless singalongs, and Dustin had really found his voice at this point. You can still kinda pinpoint some of the singers he's emulating on Identity Crisis, but by The Illusion of Safety, he'd become one of the most distinct vocalists of the emo/post-hardcore boom. He wasn't "whiny" or "nasally" or whatever other stereotypical adjectives got thrown at emo singers; he had a warmer, thicker delivery that felt like it was coming from the bottom of his stomach. Even his most sugar-coated moments were aggressive, and even his screamiest parts had a melodic clarity.
These unique qualities and the push and pull between the many sides of Thrice came through all throughout The Illusion of Safety, but never more strongly than it did on the album's signature song, "Deadbolt." Even with all the exciting paths that Thrice would explore after this album, "Deadbolt" still holds up as one of their most remarkable songs. Channelling the chaotic spirit of underground '90s hardcore and screamo, the song completely avoids traditional verse-chorus-verse song structure; it's just one awesome part after the next. Kicking off with a snare hit so iconic that you know what song it is before the one-second mark, "Deadbolt" goes into one of Teppei's best-ever riffs, a perfect storm of melody, technicality, and power. For emo kids, this was "Crazy Train." Just when you're hooked, "Deadbolt" becomes a call and response between Dustin's anthemic one-liners and heroic twin leads. Then it's a punchy post-hardcore hook, and then it's bright, sweet pop punk. And we still haven't hit the one-minute mark. Suddenly, the catchiest part of the song turns into the chuggiest breakdown, as Dustin scream-sings "AND YOU! MY TRUE LOVE! You call from the hilltop/You call through the streets: Darling don't you know the water is poison?" A little heavy on the emo melodrama? Maybe, but so effective and all the metaphor and biblical references made it deeper and more serious than other songs that may have seemed similar on the surface. And as the tone in Dustin's voice turns from desperation to regret, the musical tone shifts too, going from a metalcore breakdown into something more slow-paced and ethereal. It's an unexpected yet cathartic climax, and just to shake things up one more time, it leads into a solo piano coda. On paper, this looks like one of Thrice's messiest songs, but in execution, it's one of their most crowd-pleasing.
Not surprisingly, The Illusion of Safety was a hit. With emo, post-hardcore, metalcore, and pop punk all getting mainstream attention in 2002, and this album falling right in the middle of that venn diagram, the major labels came knocking and Thrice signed to Island Records only a few months after Illusion's release (and just one month after Thursday left Victory for the same label). The band got right back in the studio with Brian McTernan, and with Island's bigger budget, they made The Artist in the Ambulance, which sounded like a big mainstream rock record on the surface but only found Thrice getting harder, better, and stronger. It elevated the band out of the underground and onto the radio and MTV, and the more popular they got, the more experimental they got, outlasting the post-hardcore/emo boom by eventually branching off into everything from art rock to trip-hop to folk music to sludge metal and beyond. They're a band who kept evolving and accomplished so much and continue to do so, and they are certainly not living in the shadow of their earlier works. But when you're looking for the charm of The Illusion of Safety, nothing else scratches the itch. It was overflowing with more ambition than the post-hardcore underground could contain, but still had the appealing rawness that so many mainstream emo bands skipped over entirely. It became influential immediately, spawning countless imitators, and it remains a pillar of 21st century post-hardcore. Even back then it was unmatched by so many of the bands who tried to embrace a similar formula, and it's aged more gracefully than most of them. In many ways, it captures a moment in time and feels like a snapshot of a very exciting era for post-hardcore. But it's also outlived that moment. It's not an album I look to today when I'm seeking nostalgia; it's an album that I hear something new in each time I listen.
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