Review Summary: From “Anberlin without ambition” to "Anberlin with less ambition".
Following their catchy, promising and enjoyable debut album ‘There Came A Lion’, I used a throwaway comment to describe Ivoryline in a nutshell: “Anberlin without ambition”. Many would have taken such a description as derogatory, yet that could not be further from the truth. If anything, presuming you are a fan of melodic alt-rockers Anberlin in the first place, it was actually a rather large compliment. There are thousands of inferior bands which the Texan outfit could have chosen to model themselves on, so aspiring to sound similar to Anberlin was a wise decision. Relevantly, one had to recall that ‘There Came A Lion’ was Ivoryline’s debut LP, so the then quintet would hopefully have plenty of time to forge their own sound with subsequent releases. On follow-up album ‘Vessels’, that is exactly what they do; moving from Anberlin without ambition to Anberlin with less ambition.
Successfully managing to talk Jason Vena out of his four year long retirement, a further link to Anberlin emerges on infectious opener ‘The Healing’. Vena was once the promising lead singer of Acceptance; a band whose guitarist Christian McAlhaney now plays for Anberlin! Vena’s guest vocals seamlessly combine with Jeremy Gray, while synths and guitar power the song along at a rapid rate. While synths are used in a much subtler fashion elsewhere, the remainder of the first half of ‘Vessels’ progresses just as satisfyingly, with astute refinements. Lead single ‘Instincts’ eventually wins you over with its deceptively catchy chorus, the heartfelt ‘Hearts Open’ slows things down, while the title track pleasingly gets heavier. With assistance from producer Aaron Sprinkle (guess who else he has worked with), Ivoryline have beefed up their sound here, almost completely ditching their original pop-punk leanings. In fact, moments such as the “woh wohs” littered through the otherwise solid ‘Walking Dead’ seem rather out of place.
While the three musicians play their part more than competently, Gray is undoubtedly the major selling point of the now quartet; his vocals often channeling the sublimely soaring nature of Anberlin’s Stephen Christian. His lyrics are solid in their conviction, but as a word of warning to those who are averse to the occasional bit of religious preaching; many lyrical passages here directly relate to the band’s christian faith. I am fairly certain that the choral chant of “Thank-you father” at the climax of ‘Hearts Open’ is not a schoolboy thanking his dad for a lift, nor is the line “He didn’t bleed forever” in ‘The Greatest Love’ a reference to the film ‘Predator’.
If ‘Vessels’ has a weakness, it may be that its thirteen tracks are two too many. In consolidating their sound, the album’s mid-section does blend into each other a little too much, and tracks such as ‘No One Else’ and ‘Broken Bodies’ could have been excluded. This is well and truly negated however, by the quality presented on the final three tracks. Sandwiching the slightly more experimental sounds of ‘Naked’ are two cuts where Ivoryline satisfyingly become more ambitious with their song structures. ‘Made From Dust’ is destined to become a fan favorite, with Gray’s enchanting falsetto complementing the cut’s sparse first half, which eventually gives way to a thrilling climax. ‘You Bring Fire’ is even better with both Gray and guitarist Dusty Kittle at their very best on this spine-tingling closer.
While undoubtedly being a step forward, ‘Vessels’ is unlikely to dissuade you from your original perception towards Ivoryline… If one was not impressed by the band following their debut, then the improvements showcased here are unlikely to be sufficiently significant to change your mind. For fans however, the mix is near-perfect; since the energetic catchiness of their debut remains, while there are also more than enough aspects of progression to satisfy. The ambitious closing trio is really the key here; a preview of Ivoryline’s future that could potentially see their stock sky-rocket. For let us not forget that it was not until Anberlin’s third album ‘Cities’ where that band truly came into their own. Hopefully, Ivoryline will be ready to record their ‘Cities’ come 2012. Until then, ‘Vessels’ is an excellent and enjoyable album which provides a very promising launching pad.
Recommended Tracks: You Bring Fire, The Healing, Made From Dust & Vessels.