Review Summary: Anberlin's horizons look better than ever in this modern age.
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of Anberlin crushing what seemed to be impossibly high expectations with Vital
. In reference to the band’s widely acknowledged 2007 magnum opus, fans have clamored for a Cities Part 2
, causing the band’s two subsequent releases in a more polished, arena rock direction to suffer in the perspective of many listeners. Vital
sidesteps this issue by retracing the strongest elements of their previous works---from the hook-laden youthful energy of Blueprints for the Black Market
all the way to the layered and innovative instrumentation of Dark is the Way, Light is a Place
---to create a backdrop of familiarity that allows the album to avoid disappointing fans of their old styles. However, what elevates this release to greatness is the inventiveness of the band to incorporate new elements---tasteful use of M83-inspired synthesizers and instrumentals chief among them all.
Youthful energy serves as a sort of vitality for the album, forming a foundation that simultaneously pleases old fans and creates the backbone of the album. Opener ‘Self-Starter’ begins with a drumming onslaught that shatters any memories of the almost-blase midtempo rock of Anberlin’s recent past. Though it is another case of a high-energy opener of an Anberlin album, it easily overpowers all previous efforts. Lead singer Stephen Christian's delivery of the impassioned lyrics is inspired in a way it hasn't been since ‘The Resistance.’ Listeners also experience a first for Anberlin: distorted female vocals that sound almost like synthesizers, courtesy of Christian’s wife. The surprisingly catchy pre-chorus works perfectly, leading up to the powerful chorus. Lead single ‘Someone Anyone’ also features intriguing lyrics in its quickly-sung and infectious chorus line. It is the sort of heavy single that harkens back to era of ‘The Feel Good Drag’ and ‘Paperthin Hymn.’ ‘Desires’ sees Christian retread relationship breakup lyrical themes, but this time the lyrics avoid cliches, instead sporting cutting lines such as: "the knife that's resting in my back is proof enough for me/ that you're a one time catastrophe." The intro guitar riff and the anthemic chorus are the heaviest segments of Anberlin yet, which are connected by a surprisingly melodic and bass-driven verse. These generally straightforward rockers give Vital
the hint of the youthful passion that drove Anberlin’s first three albums and will doubtlessly please old fans. However, Vital
is only partially about looking to the past; the biggest step it takes forward is the incorporation of other elements.
The most obviously synthesizer-reliant song on Vital
is the irresistibly groovy ‘Intentions,’ which begins with an uninteresting guitar riff that precedes bouncy, even danceable synthesizers. It becomes obvious that the traditional rock instrumentation takes a backseat to the synthesizers for the duration of the song, with the exception of the bridge’s change of pace breakdown. The song perfectly relates something that at its core is wholly Anberlin but is freshly polished into something innovative. Indeed, perhaps most impressive about the inclusion of sleek electronics is Anberlin’s ability to avoid saturating songs with them. Instead, they complement and supplement the pre-existing skeleton of the album while adding cohesiveness within and among songs. Perfectly complementing Christian’s dreamlike crooning in the verses, the delicately light, airy atmosphere of ‘Other Side’ contrasts the surprisingly heavy chorus. Without the brief low-register synthesizer at the end of the verse that prepares the listener for the ensuing spiritual passion and energy, the song would feel disparate and disjointed. Indeed, this holds true for the album as a whole. The transition between ‘Little Tyrants,’ with a neat drum introduction and aggressive rock approach, perfectly contrasts the vibrant synthesizers of ‘Other Side’ to create a flow that will last through all eleven tracks.
Just as important as the addition of synthesizers, however, is Anberlin’s experimentations and expansions into different musical territory. No longer do Anberlin’s ballads see a stripped down Christian accompanied by guitars. Instead, layers of strings, keyboards, and organs create lush environments that adeptly create the appropriate mood before the lead singer utters a single word. The somber organs of the verses of ‘Innocent’ relay the fact that the song is a eulogy to Christian’s grandmother, giving the vibrant lyrics appropriate context. Meanwhile, the strings of ‘Type Three’ beautifully complement Christian’s heavenly spiritual crooning about his faith. As the twinkling piano and reserved acoustic guitar swirl around in the background of the album’s prettiest chorus, ‘Type Three’ reveals itself to be Anberlin’s strongest ballad in a discography filled with fantastic ones. Likewise, closer ‘God, Drugs & Sex’ utilizes layered instrumentation to create the densest song with the greatest payoff the band has written. The fantastic lyrics detail a failing relationship of two people with different worldviews, with the back and forth between Christian and guest vocalist Christie DuPree showing some of the very best Anberlin lyrically has to offer in an album full of fantastic lyrics. The song itself is gorgeous, and DuPree’s angelic vocals work perfectly in tandem with Christian. The introduction of female vocals in ‘Self Starter’ and then again in ‘God, Drugs & Sex’ gives the album perfect closure.
In retrospect, the move towards electronically augmented alternative rock would never have succeeded without the experience in production and layering that Anberlin’s oft-derided 2008 and 2010 releases provided. The combination of drawing influence from their past while incorporating fresh new ideas is a formula that should leave every Anberlin fan excited, not just for this album but for the future, too. There are missteps along the way, but that Vital
is one fewer vocal effect on ‘Modern Age’ or one better choral melody on ‘Orpheum’ away from topping Cities
speaks volumes to the success of Anberlin’s new approach. In ‘Modern Age,’ Christian sings, “Why so afraid to fall/that was then and this is now/ horizons look different in a modern age.” Look into Anberlin’s horizon in this modern, post-Vital
age to see a future brighter than ever.