Thursday makes a return with a melodic tour de force that's barely held back from emocore classic status. Not bad for a band that was about to break up before recording.
It seems like just yesterday that Thursday first burst onto the scene, all blood-curdling screams and earnestness, serving as screamo's commercial ambassador to a mainstream that still hadn't heard anything quite like it before. Since then they've lost that mantle -- Taking Back Sunday is now MTV's screamo band of choice -- but it's been faith-affirming for a music critic to listen to a band like Thursday meet early success, break the gates open for their own genre, and yet refuse to settle into the comfortable formula they pioneered.
Throughout each album, Thursday has been one of those rare bands that consistently display growth, and A City by the Light Divided is no exception. To be sure, all the hallmarks that define them are still here: there's still plenty of well-timed screaming, larger-than-life drums and guitars, and a healthy amount of aggression. But added to the mix now are chiming, atmospheric guitarwork, epic six-minute suites, and the revelation that Geoff Rickley (!) is actually one of the best damn singers -- that's singer, not screamer -- in rock today.
The biggest knock against Thursday (and screamo in general, I suppose) has always been the lack of melodicism, and Rickley's newfound ability to hit notes (there's a vocal coach in the credits, if that explains any) suddenly shores up their biggest musical weakness. He positively careens his way through the album, switching from tender and vulnerable to his driving screams on the switch of a dime, capitalizing on his voice's natural emotiveness for all it's worth. All that opens up the sonic opportunities for Thursday, and they've responded with an album that resembles nothing more than early U2 in its driving force, passion, and cohesiveness.
Thus, A City by the Light Divided sounds less like a typical screamo album and more like an expansive tour de force of flat-out rock. We always knew Thursday thought big and played big, but it's never been clearer than on this album. They pretty much depict, in sonic terms, an urban apocalypse. The driving "Counting 5-4-3-2-1" and "We Will Overcome" form a one-two punch of sing-along singles, with the former offering the riot-inspiring mantra of "Burn this city, burn this city" -- and with the guitars crash-riffing in the background, you'd swear buildings were actually falling down. Elsewhere, the band channels U2's "One Tree Hill" in the ambient boiler "Running from the Rain", lamenting a friend's death on the train tracks. And Thursday, is that electronica I'm hearing on the lyric-less "Arc-Lamps, Signal Flares, a Shower of White"?
Thursday most amply displays their creative edge when they transform what is seemingly the throwback screamo track of the album -- "At This Velocity" -- into pretty, melodic pop halfway through the song. In fact, the only weak link here is "Into the Blinding Light", which is basically a par-for-the-screamo-course track. But unfortunately, despite the impressive consistency, two major problems hold A City by the Light Divided back.
First of these is that while Thursday's songwriting has grown exponentially, the lyrical depth they displayed in War All the Time -- political, introspective, cutting -- is notably absent here. Rickley can still conjure up the biting line that characterized that earlier album: "Our fathers plant arms in foreign soil/Our brothers die and no one knows/Where it ends…", he sings on "We Will Overcome", but too often he's just willing to settle into sprinkling verbal images of stuff burning (there are a lot of arson references in this album). And while it's not embarrassing, it doesn't do justice to their full lyrical potential.
Second is the fact that while the album works superbly as a cohesive whole, the individual tracks have a tendency to get bogged down in their own melodrama, most problematically in "The Lovesong Writer". Cymbals crash, drums are mixed way too loud, the guitars screech, and the rhythm is lost as Thursday gets stuck in their own noise and lose the momentum needed to captivate listeners.
However, those hurdles aren't imposing; if Thursday had cleared them (and they've demonstrated that they most certainly have the ability to), A City by the Light Divided would have been a breath away from a classic. Not bad for a band that was nearly about to break up before recording this album.