Review Summary: As a return-to-form, Vital succeeds in every way. As an album, it comes close.
The demoralizing and unenviable position of living up to a "masterpiece" is never a good one for a band to be in. Often, they either resent the work and attempt to distance themselves from it as far as possible to make a new one, or they constantly promise "back to basics" returns to form. It is, given this, unsurprising that bands like Anberlin, Interpol, and Bloc Party usually fail on both of these promises. However, Vital
, the best Anberlin album since 2007's acclaimed Cities
, proves that there is hope. By respecting the energy and spirit of their former selves, revisiting the formulas that worked so well, and injecting just enough new blood so as to make it sound fresh, Anberlin have done the impossible: made an album that lives up to Cities
The first problem that many bands have with "returning to form" is either falling back too heavily on their influences or growing too confident with their strengths. On Dark Is the Way, Light Is the Place
and New Surrender
respectively, Anberlin found themselves cornered by these issues. Dark is the Way
tumbled into the modern alternative black hole; that is, turning into U2. It was soft, overly polished, and devoid of the spirit and energy that made Cities
so great. New Surrender
, on the other hand, sounded lifelessly like "just another Anberlin album", introducing nothing new while at the same time subtracting a lot of the depth and variety of its predecessor. Vital
has neither of these problems; it sounds squarely like an Anberlin album and no one else, and yet feels laboured over and inspired. From the first pound of "Self-Starter", it's clear that Stephen Christian came into the writing process of this album bound and determined to create something excellent that would quiet down the fans who had been whining for Cities
part II. It's still very poppy, but it's pop with punch, and the instrumental tightness and clear sense of identity do wonders for the finished product.
The best track on the album, "Little Tyrants", presents a perfectly clear summary of how Anberlin have revitalized (no pun intended) their career. While it's extremely comparable to "Godspeed", one of the stronger tracks from Cities
, it doesn't feel like a retread at all. It's heavy, emphasizing the strengths of the group (including Christian's vocals, which never sound better than when they're soaring above a barrage of guitars and drums), and tries out an a capella gang vocal part that's well-written, well-implemented, and belies the group's veteran status. If they weren't so clearly sure of their own strengths this would almost sound like something off a debut album. This confidence comes through on tracks like "Type Three", which combines great production and implementation with just simply being superbly written. "Intentions" is noteworthy, as it sounds like nothing the band has ever even approached before. The heavy synth-pop of it is almost unbearably catchy while still being familiar and recognizable, and fits the album to a tee, representative of how diverse it really is.
While it may sound too glowing, Anberlin have improved on every aspect of their musicality. It's not a perfect album; "Innocent" sounds like a leftover from Dark is the Way
, and the lyrics are still nothing spectacular (an area in which Cities
triumphs over Vital
), but especially for a fan of the band's previous work, Vital
is fresh, sure of itself, well-written and, as much as I thought I would never get to say it, actually lives up to Cities
. For an Anberlin fan, that's about as much as one could hope for.