May, 2011. A younger Mark Z. has just finished his junior year of college, reeling from adolescent crushes and mired in deep apprehension for the future. In this turmoil, nothing soothed the soul better than the rushing emotion and positive energy of bands like A Wilhelm Scream, No Trigger, and Heartsounds. Were they metal? Fuck no, but their intricate melodic punk was exactly what I needed at the time. This listening regime also had the unexpected consequence of reintroducing me to Light This City, a California melodic death quintet whose two founding members formed Heartsounds after City’s dissolution in 2008. Admittedly, my initial memories of City were limited — their 2006 album Facing the Thousand garnered a couple listens on my iPod, but overall the group was largely overshadowed by the Darkest Hours and Arch Enemys that dominated my listening that decade. Nonetheless, there’s always some pleasant nostalgia associated with seeing an obscure band from your past make a return, and that’s doubly true when that return is as excellent as Terminal Bloom.
Bloom is one of those albums where you’re not even sure where to begin because there’s just so much it does right. As a melodeath five-piece with a female vocalist, comparisons to Arch Enemy are inevitable, but City eschew Enemy’s pop formula trappings while simultaneously sounding much brighter. Vocalist Laura Nichol and drummer Ben Murray have evidently brought the spirit of Heartsounds with them, as these 10 tracks are positively brimming with the slick, catchy riffs and youthful vigor of that project. At the same time Nichol’s rasp is as acidic as any in the genre, spewing lyrics that remain grounded in personal struggles and emotional desperation. Much like Darkest Hour, there’s also the slightest whiff of metalcore present, along with an occasional old school thrash influence that betrays both their Bay Area origins and guitarist Ryan Hansen’s time in melothrash act Glacier Eater.
Of course, style means nothing without substance, and fortunately, City have plenty of both. Opener “Reality in Disarray” begins with classic flamenco guitars and harmonized leads before kicking into one of the best goddamn riffs I’ve heard this year. Combining melodeath urgency with classic metal bounce, this is one of those simple but brilliant riffs that sounds like it should have been written 30 years ago, and it turns out to be only a prelude for the nimble guitars and massive licks in the rest of the track. Personal favorite “A Grotesque Reflection” continues the great songwriting with a mid-paced verse melody whose sheer liveliness makes it sound almost danceable, while “Dormant Tide” evokes a sunnier version of Revocation with its vibrant call-and-response riff and huge closing leads.
Highlights are everywhere, from the stormcloud opening of the title track to the playful twirling of “The Wake of My Will” to the ornate early In Flames influence of closer “Wild Heart.” With an average track length of just three-and-a-half minutes, the songs themselves are likewise packed with ideas that dart swiftly from one to the next without ever sounding disjointed. Part of this cohesion is due to Murray’s tight drumming, which deftly shifts between blasting and galloping thrash beats with a relentlessness that calls to mind The Black Dahlia Murder. Yet in terms of sheer conviction, no one matches Nichol, who screams like Bloom is the only album she’ll ever be able to perform on in her life. Her intelligible and passionate rasps make her sound like she believes every last syllable and wants you to believe them, too.
Really, the only negative is that the outstanding first half causes the second to sag a bit in comparison, but even that’s minor. The 32-minute runtime ensures things never get boring, and although the notorious Zach Ohren production job is a tad loud, it’s hard to complain when the clean and polished sound fits so well. Five albums in and a decade’s time off were apparently exactly what Light This City needed to return stronger than ever, and in an era when a lot of mid-00s bands are staging their comebacks,1 none have matched the beaming emotion and songwriting prowess displayed on Bloom. This is the ‘feel good’ extreme metal album of the summer, one of the best albums of the year thus far, and proof positive that regardless of whether they’re playing punk or melodic death metal, these California kids know how to make music that’ll no doubt resonate for years to come.