Review Summary: This album isn't Cities, but it doesn't need to be- it's incredible in its own right
What is vital? Is it really just what is necessary for life, such as food and water? Is it what is telling us what is alive, like our vital signs? Or is it that which is full of life? Anberlin would have us believe that all three can be concentrated into one with their music. A powerful, touching blend of Christ-influenced alternative rock that always provides a shock to the listener's system and is packed with enough punch to jolt one who is lazily tracking the songs to one who is fully engrossed. Yes, this album creates life within you and within those involved.
Stephen Christian is vital. He has always been the heart and soul of the band, but never to a fault. He is the brains and the heart of the operation, pouring his soul somewhat personal lyrics and discussing his revelations through music. He brings everything to life with his potent pipes; he loses no power even when singing through the mechanized voicebox that alters his voice on on the choruses of "Someone Anyone" and "Modern Age," which are coincidentally some of the best Anberlin songs ever recorded- especially the latter. He doesn't sound like he is struggling like on Never Take Friendship Personal or Cities, he is vital; sounding more alive than ever and reinvigorated after dabbling in acoustic songwriting with his side-project Anchor & Braille.
Looking at the present, and not the past, is vital. Anberlin did themselves a disservice by releasing Cities because all fans will forever hold that album as the gold standard. It's impossible not to compare Vital to their magnum opus because it seemed an impossibly high mountain to climb. First impressions of Vital made it seem that the band could not scale the summit. Then, with more time and less subliminal comparing, Vital begins to shine in its own right. It flows a lot better than Cities does- sounding like a complete album rather than the 'collection of singles' vibe present on Cities- and is far more consistent across the board, although the first half is definitely more difficult to adjust to than the second. It's also useless to compare the two albums at all- the band that made Vital sounds completely different than the one that made Cities; it even sounds different than the one that made Dark is the Way, Light is a Place. This is the album of a band that has everything figured out despite their (comparative) missteps of Dark is the Way and New Surrender.
Maturity is vital. In the most literal way, if one does not grow, they cannot continue to live and many bands have found this to be true. Innovation and reinvention is the key to having a career longer than two albums- Anberlin has done both. They have shed basically all traces of pop-punk that dominated their first three albums. It would be too easy to make songs with shallow verses that exist just to lead to a golden hook for a decade. it's time to move on. This is alt-rock: on the surface, it's even lost all of its Christian influences. Sure, there are songs like "God, Drugs & Sex" that are drab, but it's still a well-constructed song with a decent meaning. The ballads are stronger than ever, the album's opening combination of "Self-Starter" and "Little Tyrants" is an aural assault that hits extremely hard and all the hooks are still catchy without trying too hard to be. Vital is different and not because it has to be, it's because it wants to be.
Execution is vital. Yes, this album is different, but it would be a low-quality, worthless addition to Anberlin's catalog if the band members weren't on the same page. Vital marks the first Anberlin album where the music plays a nearly equal part as Christian's vocals do and all the band members have stepped their game up. Drummer Nathan Williams makes especially huge contributions to the album- his punishing snare rolls on "Little Tyrants," the sturdy backbone on "Someone Anyone" and hi-hat accented chorus of "Orpheum" are just three examples of truly powerful alt-rock drumming. His beats are still fairly simple but they have a power that was lacking from other albums. The same goes for guitarist Joseph Milligan, whose power chords and riffs are important for both support for the keyboards on "Intentions"and for leading the song along on tracks like "Desires"- both of which feature instrumental bridges. Even the synthesizer has a starring role on "Innocent" and the other ballads. On Vital, the music is the distinguishing factor and Christian is the carpet that ties it all together.
Vital is vital. It could mark the beginning of a renaissance for Anberlin as their career approaches the 10-year mark; it's one of the best albums of 2012 thus far, not to mention one of the best, if not the best, of their career. It's an album that seems to be simple, but is in fact complex and layered. Christian is definitely still self-aware- "Desires" has a forced chorus, "God, Drugs & Sex" is a vain attempt at recreating epic closers like *fin- but he's also willing to step outside his comfort zone and grow. That is really the key to Anberlin's success here- they changed their sound on Dark is the Way, Light is a Place now: it has been nearly perfected.