Thursday – A City By The Light Divided

A City By The Light Divided

A City By The Light Divided is the fourth full-length by post-hardcore band Thursday and it is an ambitious and complex work – a musical and emotional exploration that comes on strong with a sometimes overpowering mix of sonic textures and relentlessly pressing rhythm. Its sheer force and loudness (the massive, pummeling, rushing-forward sound of the guitars, drums, synths, and vocals) push the listener to the limit – some will resist it and get steamrollered and others will willingly go along for the intense and insightful ride.

The album was produced by Dave Fridmann and finds the band members stretching their wings, merging more melodic, pop sensibilities with their harsher, post-hardcore sound. Gone is the raw, awkward fusing of song structures of their breakthrough album Full Collapse (where all the pieces of the sonic puzzle didn’t seem to fit together smoothly) and the recorded-in-a-vacuum, downer vibe of their War All The Time album.

Songs are more layered and dense in sound and vocals, yet are still immediate and direct. While it’s not “Full Collapse – Part 2″ musically, the album does revisit the previous one through the lyrics, but with a more developed sound, cohesive song-structure, and vivid vocal delivery. This is a band that creates songs where the sound and the lyrics (the music and the meaning) hold equal weight and support each other.

Thursday have integrated varied elements from disparate musical genres – from their punk and hardcore roots (on songs “At This Velocity” and “Into The Blinding Light”), more pop-oriented constructions (on “Counting 5-4-3-2-1”), angular-guitar rock (“Telegraph Avenue Kiss”), instrumentals (“Arc – Lamps, Signal Flares, A Shower of White (The Light”)), the confessional singer-songwriter (“The Lovesong Writer”), 80s New Wave on certain keyboard segments in songs, blues notes (in parts of “The Other Side of the Crash/Over and Out(Of Control)”), rock ‘n’ roll and metal guitar riffs in parts of various songs, and church choir bits (“We Will Overcome”).

Geoff Rickly, the main singer and songwriter, pens lyrics with an impressionistic bent, stark and thick with imagery, like pages ripped out of a journal that take you on a journey with someone who is restless, and questioning, and still searching for answers and the meaning(s) of life – as most of us are. The themes of his lyrics delve into tragedy and loss, the past, memories and looking back, isolation and aloneness, the state of personal relationships (as well as the state of the nation and the world), spirituality (in the sense of believing in something, and believing in yourself), and that the world is pretty messed up, but there is still hope and it’s possible to change things for the better.

Geoff sounds sweeter and prettier than on previous albums (the angst-filled, screaming barks are mainly contained to the songs “At This Velocity” and “Into The Blinding Light”). He sings in an impassioned voice, emoting with a yearning urgency in clear, pure tones that bring to mind Robert Smith of The Cure (minus the whine and perpetual melancholy) and Matt Bellamy of Muse (without the British accent and grandiose vocal flailing).

The opener, “The Other Side of the Crash/Over and Out (Of Control)”, is a continuation of “Understanding In a Car Crash” from Full Collapse (about being haunted by memories of a car crash and how you keep re-living it in your mind) and it’s sonically divided into two halves. It starts with a distant noise speeding up, then slams right into fiery, full-throttle, guitars, bashing drums and cymbals, and pounding keyboards at an accelerated tempo. Geoff sings plaintively “I’ll meet you there – on the other side of the crash.”, while quickly adding “It’ll never be the same”, with airy touches within his vocal phrasings and high-note sighs, against insistent keyboard notes. About a third of the way in, the song downshifts to a slower pace, with a bluesy, sliding guitar riff and sustained, organ-like keyboard. An unwinding sound develops amid cymbal shimmer, then a faster-paced sound builds up again with stormy drumming, with Geoff singing as if in a dream “keep crashing this car (until it spins) out of control” – and at that precise vocal moment, a swirling, spinning, falling-down-the-rabbit-hole feeling takes over the senses, until a really fast tempo kicks in at the end of the song, with organ in the background, and it’s like you’re at the scene of the crash – you can hear the broken glass, crushed metal, hubcaps spinning dizzily (“keep crashing this car (over and over)”) and the relentless keyboard tones and unrelenting drumbeats intensify and overpower the sound.

The first single off the album is “Counting 5-4-3-2-1” and has its roots in another tragedy in Geoff’s life (a friend of his was killed on the tracks by an on-coming train), but it also encompasses the more general idea of wanting to escape and leave a physical or emotional location behind, but that the past will catch up with you (Geoff exclaims “Five, four, three, two – what are you waiting for? The train is catching up…keep on running, don’t look back”).

This radio-friendly single (i.e., verse-chorus-verse, 3 and 1/2 minute format) is quick and catchy, cramming all the best hooks and high-energy into a fast-acting, rockin song, from the opening angelic vocal bits to the urgent, anthem choruses to the short, choppy guitar lines to the hurtling, express-train rhythms. At the ends of the chorus parts, Geoff’s voice echoes and spirals out, and just when you it comes close to a traditional verse-chorus-verse song, the break where the traditional guitar solo should be becomes a thick, churning miasma of guitars, cymbals, layered voices, and noise, giving off a feverish vibe before the abruptly-ending, final chorus.

“Sugar InThe Sacrament” is a slowly-building, elegiac epic of delicate tension and cathartic release (about questioning faith in general, and from what Geoff has said in interviews, about the inextricable link, for him, between sex, religion, and betrayal – and about wondering if you can be redeemed by love). The song opens quietly, with wavering background sound and synth notes, then a cantering drumbeat, and bright, ringing guitar lines (like U2) come in, and Geoff is all forlorn-sounding and crestfallen at the start of the verses, sounding like Robert Smith of The Cure (“There’s no one watching over me or over you.”).

Sharp blasts of guitar and cymbal shimmer break into the quiet, and a constant drumbeat on the chorus backs Geoff, who sings in a more anguished and intense tone against sustained, zig-zagging synth notes.

There is a respite, back to low-key, mournful, beautiful vocals, with continuing drumbeat (“…feel your body dissolving like sugar in the sacrament…”). Then the chorus builds up again, with little blip and other synth sounds and strummed guitar that turn into loping guitar sound and zingy, sustained keyboard notes, becoming louder and more intense, as Geoff sings in a more urgent, impassioned tone, until he finally reaches deep within himself, and with great effort, pushes out his vocals so that he’s on the brink vocally and emotionally. A big swell of sharp, distorted guitars surges forward and ends the song with distortion.

The next song, “At This Velocity”, changes the pace dramatically. It’s the least sonically-adorned song on album – a punk-fueled number of scatter-shot, thundering drums, scrambling, skeining guitar lines (like Queens of The Stone Age), bashed cymbals and cymbal shimmer, occasional amped-up, fuzzed-out, engine-like guitar blasts, with Geoff screaming his lungs out (harkening back to “Cross Out The Eyes” on Full Collapse).

There are three to four short vocal lines – one with death-metal-type guttural growls from Geoff, while the rest are of him shouting. There’s a break mid-way in song where it’s just the unhinged screaming of Geoff (“Just keep moving!”) and spare drums and cymbals, then a motor-like sound revs up and its all chaotic until the end of the song, where it segues into a dreamy bit, with Geoff singing sweetly – a reprieve from the primal, raw force of what came before – and it feels like you’re floating even-keeled among the clouds – but only for a moment – as the devastating lyrics sink in, spoken into the plane’s black box: “I’m not coming home. We’re never coming home…”, and the word “home” is repeatedly echoed, becoming ever more distant…a haunting refrain, against a bittersweetly lilting guitar line that just makes your heart plummet to the pit of your stomach.

The band members have said that they are about social consciousness and not politically oriented, but “We Will Overcome” is their anthem song, similar in theme to “Autobiography Of A Nation” from Full Collapse, with Geoff declaring sharply, defiantly that “…our fathers plant arms in foreign soil – our brothers die and no one knows where it ends (it ends between the crosshairs…”). It all comes off too stridently, with sing-songy lyric phrases, atonal keyboard notes, and stinging guitar lines, balanced partly by Geoff sighing angelically in the background and blending with his own vocals that are slightly buried in the mix on some verses.

At the end of the song, there is a rousing anthem chorus with the help of Amanda Tannen of Stellastarr* and Mary Fridmann. It’s a rally-cry mix of an exultantly shouting Geoff and strong choral voices – trying to push through and persevere – “We will overcome if no one sleeps tonight”.

The lengthy titled “Arc – Lamps, Signal Flares, A Shower of White (The Light)” is a short instrumental of bright sound and cooler tone at first, compared to previous fiery songs, that slowly turns into sharply sky-scraping guitar noise (like My Bloody Valentine) and organ. The tempo is steady, yet uplifting, with church organ synth in the background and occasional cymbal crashes, looming, high-pitched, feedback-drenched guitar lines like the more noisy shoegazer bands.

“Running From The Rain” opens like a Sigur Ros soundscape, full of slow, mandolin-type, wavering reverberations and thundercloud booms, then U2-like ringing guitars and galloping drums, cymbal crashes and echoed keyboards come in and Geoff starts off singing in a low-key tone, but then changes to an intense keening, as the song quickly peaks with an immense, ascending swoop of guitar sound (like a concentrated, sped-up “Souvlaki Space Station” by Slowdive) an expansive, spacey sound.

Geoff sings his heart out, all yearning desperation and the song peaks a second time with big, ringing guitars. Near the end of the song, Geoff channels Bono of U2 at his most sincere and unaffected, while some of Geoff’s vocals are murmured in the background and pushed further down in the mix. The guitars take on a brighter, softer sound, like The Cure. This song is similar in theme to “Counting 5-4-3-2-1”, where the focus is on the loss of Geoff’s friend through a train accident, and the idea of running from your past, running away from the memories.

“Telegraph Avenue Kiss”, an energetic, upbeat song with a mix of different musical styles that somehow fit together (possibly due to producer Dave Fridmann smoothing out the edges). It starts off with whispery vocals and background tape-played-backwards vocals, then a gamut of genres are run through, including late-70s/early 80s, British, wiry, angular guitars, bopping, ska-rhythms that keep changing tempo, and driving, loping 90s guitar sound (a la Interpol). A catchy chant glues it all together: “K-I-S-S, I’m in distress, I need someone to spell it out: you know our love’s not unconditional.”

There are a ton of words packed into the next song, “The Lovesong Writer”, and Geoff sing-talks in hushed tones, with piano accompaniment, until a huge crash of guitar and burnished cymbal frisson, and Geoff starts vocally wringing himself in sharp and regretful tones. The guitars are all grimy, fuzzed, and bashing and a spiraling-down bass guitar note weighs in between the choruses and verses. Assorted sounds are piled on, and the song spills over into fiery chaos for a time, like a melting spool of film, and the end of song is very early-Sigur Ros-like, flaming like a phoenix out of the still-burning embers, all growling, low-bass sound and noisy distortion a coming apart of sound until Boom! the sound of a door slamming shut, possibly, and the song ends.

“Into The Blinding Light” is an intense, tightly-wound song that just doesn’t let up, with slammin’ drums, crashing cymbals, dark synth lines, pummeling guitar sound (very Muse-like), and Geoff shouting. There are quick, dynamic tempo shifts, but the sound is still always ascending in tone it keeps reaching out, higher and louder, trying to reach a crescendo. Geoff’s shouting at one point morphs into a short siren wail. Three to four mixed vocal lines interplay, sometimes twinned for a more grand effect and one line where Geoff sings in a calmer tone under the yelling.

Near the finish, Geoff comes in with an urgent, desperate plea: “please someone help me – take away my loneliness, please someone fill me – take away my emptiness, please someone touch me – take away my longing…please someone show me the light…” and keyboard runs start to build up, blotting out of all other sounds at the end until its just ear-shredding keyboard arpeggios that reach a breaking point – then ‘Voosh’ – it stops and there’s dead silence. This song would be a fine closer to the album, but it’s followed by…

“Autumn Leaves Revisited”, a homecoming of sorts back to “How Long Is The Night?” from Full Collapse, except that this time there is a feeling of hope to the lyrics by the end of the song. A lulling, simple refrain of strummed, acoustic guitar and Geoff’s far-away, low-key vocals start it off and it almost sounds like an alt-country lament without the twang. Then drums, cymbals, guitars, and bass shake it up and the song becomes a showcase for the intricate interplay of the instruments (and the musicians).

A calm-before-the-storm lull sets in again, and there is a slow build-up of sound, almost like the band The Church – everything weaving together – melancholy, but aspiring, ascending, reaching out with a spacey sound. There is more space in this song than all the previous ones there is room to breathe and contemplate.
Then its back to slightly calmer vibe and simple guitar line with Geoff singing low-key as drumbeat, other guitars, and keyboard come into the fore and Geoff strains and sings achingly and passionately – “the sky is clear and the summer never ends – won’t you take me there?” against a low-end, bottom-heavy rumble (like Depeche Mode) and surging-forward guitars and drums.

It all goes quiet again at the end of the song, with just guitar-strum and Geoff’s soft voice: “the leaves will fall and so will you – when you do bury me under them too – seconds pass, we’ll make it through – eventually we are all going home”.