Review Summary: Too late to make demands, when you've got a riot on your hands.
Anberlin are one of the most surprising bands in music today. In theory, they seem fairly generic; they combine a heavier rock sound with the catchy hooks of pop-punk. But in practice, there's an x-factor in their music that elevates them above all of the other bands in mainstream rock. This x-factor isn't too easily identifiable; for my money the best answer would be the fact that they utilize devices that are seemingly inherently kitschy, but they somehow manage to present them in a way that is anything but cheesy or contrived. Sing-a-long style "la la's," hand claps, group vocals, and a children's choir have all been employed by Anberlin over the past few years, and they haven't made a misstep yet. Led by the ridiculously strong vocals of Stephen Christian, Anberlin will release New Surrender a week or so from now, and they deserve every bit of the praise that this album will hopefully garner.
If there was one problem with Cities, it was that there were one or two songs that didn't live up to the rest of the album. It was an understandable flaw - clearly Anberlin were still trying to gain their footing as a band that had recently gone from a fairly standard pop-punk sound to a more fleshed out sound that actually set them apart from other bands. On a few songs, it was apparent that they were still trying to capture some of the youthfulness of Never Take Friendship Personal while disregarding the fact that they had matured beyond that level. With New Surrender, they've rectified that problem with their strongest songwriting yet, and on a few tracks they even manage to bridge the gap between old Anberlin and new Anberlin effectively, something they couldn't quite manage to do on Cities. In short, New Surrender is the best Anberlin album yet - an album that shows an energetic, passionate band firing on all cylinders.
The most apparent comparison that can be made to the progression Anberlin have made is through the re-recording of Never Take Friendship Personal's "Feel Good Drag." Most saw the decision to re-record the song as a questionable move, but it turns out to be just the opposite. The song is now heavier (even without the screamed bridge; a great sign of their progression in songwriting) and more streamlined, doing away with some of the pointless nuances that made the track feel bogged down on Never Take Friendship Personal. It also couldn't have better placement in the tracklist; it fits perfectly with the new songs on the album. In short, that's New Surrender. It's Anberlin taking their previous sound and refining it, taking away unnecessary aspects and adding in the flair for straightforward yet impressively cohesive songwriting that they began to display on Cities.
Anberlin continue their trend of hard-hitting openers and epic closing tracks with this album. "The Resistance" somehow sounds even better than "Godspeed," one of the strongest tracks on Cities. The most predominant member of Anberlin has always been vocalist and lyricist Stephen Christian, who is easily one of the most talented vocalists in rock music. He commands a formidable range of lows and falsettos, and he sounds amazing on every song here, but on "The Resistance" in particular because he displays something that was rarely heard on earlier albums - aggression. He's always been an energetic singer, but here he sounds angry
, as if he could spearhead a revolution, and that's something that's rarely, if ever, heard in rock music today. If it weren't for "(*Fin)", "The Resistance" would be his strongest vocal performance yet. "Misearbile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)" is a bit different from typical Anberlin closing tracks. First, it's a bit shorter than both "(*Fin)" and "Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen," and it shows a remarkable amount of restraint by everyone in the band. Beginning with minimal drums and atmospheric guitar playing that back Christian's impressively morbid lyrics ("Your days are numbered when there's blood on the moon"), the track progresses from a subdued quiet into an absolutely huge arena rock chorus, and the song's conclusion will leave you breathless. While it may not be as amazing as "(*Fin)," it's a fitting conclusion to the record, and nothing the band does will likely ever match "(*Fin)" anyway.
Those two songs aren't the only standouts though. Additionally, "Younglife" is everything that a few tracks on Cities wished they could be, displaying both the innocent nature of Anberlin's first records and the matured songwriting of Cities. Guitarists Joseph Milligan and Christian McAlhaney shine here with gorgeous acoustic playing and sliding electric riffs in the chorus that weave around Stephen's vocals, and the transition into the sing-a-long section at the end of the track was an ingenious touch. The conclusion of "Retrace" brings a string section into the picture, elevating an already great track into one of the album's most triumphant moments. "Breathe" is a poignant acoustic track to match Cities' "Inevitable," and "Soft Skeletons" manages to be epic despite its four minute length.
New Surrender is basically everything that Anberlin fans could have hoped for. It's a natural progression from Cities, with a notable advance in songwriting and instrumental techniques. Stephen Christian's vocals are stronger than ever, and if there was ever any question as to whether he was a formidable frontman or not, he puts those doubts to rest here. New Surrender contains twelve of the strongest Anberlin songs yet; there isn't a weak track to be heard. The best part is that it's apparent that they aren't even close to burning out yet, and if they keep this up, their next album could be a masterpiece of modern rock music.