Review Summary: Lowborn is a record that shows that even at the last minute of a long, energized career, a band is still susceptible to playing it safe.
When Anberlin announced that their follow-up album to 2012’s Vital
would be their final album, it was an unexpected and uncomfortable moment for many. Vital
was Anberlin’s epiphany, a perfection of their songwriting skill and musicianship, seamlessly tied together in a near-perfect alt rock package. While their Tooth and Nail albums were decent alt rock affairs and their early Universal recordings earned plenty airplay, but had little substance, Vital
was a vision realized. Seamlessly blending the ambiance of electronic music with the raw alternative rock of their past, Anberlin constructed their magnum opus with Vital
(and its re-release Devotion
). Right after they hit the target dead on, they were calling it a day.
As the final recording by Anberlin, Lowborn
channels much of the same musical philosophy that Vital
succeeded with, but at the same time, Anberlin’s energy is noticeably less restless. It’s an example of a band regressing, and right now, that’s the last thing anyone expected Anberlin would be doing.
Anberlin’s sound on their past album Vital
was a mix of heavy alternative rock and wavy, texture-laden electronic, all with Stephen Christian’s simmering croon floating above it all. Lowborn continues that trend with many of the same features, though the songs do less to profess the heavier side of Anberlin. As with Vital
before it, many songs use the electronic sound for ambient purposes instead of pure melody. This is clearest on the slower songs like the soaring “Atonement”, which also has a serene collection of dynamically layered vocals. “Hearing Voices” is just as volatile; its elegant waves of sound in the choruses erupt from the subdued verses, with a stomping rhythm from drummer Nathan Young. The single “Stranger Ways” is no loud roar, but a toned and steady track that is a prime example of the band’s songwriting talent. The electronic beats aren’t used solely for emotive ascension either. “Birds of Prey” is a dark and weighted song, with toned guitars and smashing drum rhythms, not unlike the music from A Perfect Circle
But the songs on Lowborn
that over-indulge on that texture are easily the weakest parts of the album, like the closer “Harbinger” (a much more repetitive track in the drawn-out vein of Vital
’s “God, Drugs and Sex”). “Armageddon” suffers from this misstep as well, with a mood that’s almost absurdly subdued, constantly feeding on the quiet and never delivering on that built-up emotive reserve. Anberlin jump back and forth between smooth integration and unambitious indulgence, making the entire album feel more direction-less than it should.
The heavier side of Anberlin is still present, however. “Dissenter” is revved up by rapid-fire guitars and electronic haymakers. Despite its intense use of fast electronic effects and its steadier bridge, “Dissenter” is a track bathed in rock fundamentals. Christian’s vocals on “Dissenter” are also some of the most furious he’s performed yet, even beating out the battlecry of Devotion
’s “Dead American.” “We Are Destroyer” and “Velvet Colored Brick” are two more examples of Anberlin’s sturdy rock background, both of which display some intense guitar riffs from guitarists Joseph Mulligan and Christian McAlhaney. But at the same time, these heavier moments are much more subdued than they were on Vital
. No song on Lowborn
shows the same unbound intensity that “Self-Starter” or “Little Tyrants” displayed. The ambiance and texture frequently take precedence over the rock influences, and while that’s not too much of a problem considering the songs’ decent quality, it shows Anberlin moving back toward the Dark Is the Way, Light is a Place
era, a time where the alternative rock vibes were not as integral and the electronic sound was much less refined.
After the triumph that was Vital
, Anberlin were bound to have a rough task in producing a worthy follow-up. It’s expected that they’d miss some marks. Lowborn
is a much more regressive effort than the ambitious Vital
, loosening its grip on the seamless merging of rock and ambient electronica. That combination is replaced with a lean toward the cooler serenity of Dark Is the Way, Light is a Place
, an album that indulged on mood too much compared to Vital
’s rapidly spiraling nature. But Lowborn
is no disaster; Anberlin’s defining sound is still present and at Lowborn
’s highs, it can very well rival their past rock successes. Even the quieter, moodier tracks like “Stranger Ways” and “Birds of Prey” generate a mastery of sonic balance, delivering hardened focus behind a veil of intimacy.
As the final act of Anberlin’s career, Lowborn
is a steady, gripping endeavor, one that embraces the band’s fascination with songwriting beyond the rock radio hooks they earned years ago. At the same time, though, it’s a record that shows that even at the last minute of a long, energized career, a band is still susceptible to playing it safe.