In Brief: The aptly-named Vital is the most satisfying straight-up rock record I’ve heard in 2012, and a worthy addition to Anberlin’s strong discography.
Vital is Anberlin‘s sixth studio album. That means that in four reviews prior to this one (for all five of their albums except their debut), I’ve gone on at some length about how this is a band that maintains its sonic identity from album to album, not really making any major changes, but then not needing to because they’re already so good at their version of dark-around-the-edges, hook-laden modern rock with slight retro influences that there’s really no reason to abandon their style. If you hear me utter the phrase “If it ain’t broke…” one more time in reference to this band, I’m sure you’ll want to throw something at me. So I’ll refrain from stating the obvious. Anberlin fans, you know what you’re getting here. Curious new listeners, this is as good of a place to start as the fan favorites Cities and Never Take Friendship Personal.
So that’s it – easy review, right? Well, not quite. Even if a longtime listener won’t hear anything shockingly different on Vital, it’s worth noting that it’s a record full of small but meaningful improvements. In terms of tempo and volume, it’s definitely their most consistently rocking and hardest-hitting album since Friendship. In terms of performance, we already knew that this band was capable in both the vocal department and the killer riffage department, but it honestly feels like every single player in the band brought his A-game on this one, especially the rhythm section. In terms of unexpected twists, while this might be a minor thing for anyone familiar with Cities, it’s notable that Vital is Anberlin’s most electronic-oriented record to date. What could have been a sore spot for listeners who prefer their rock music raw and raucous is instead handled delicately, with the keyboards and synths adding color and character to several songs without ever drowning out the work of an incredibly tight live band. If a computerized sound can help augment the song without distracting attention from the exposed nerve endings of an unmistakably human song, then Anberlin’s willing to let that computer do its job while making sure it understands its place in the pecking order. This helps Anberlin to stand out from a plethora of straightforward, back-to-basics rock bands by lending a slight air of melancholy nostalgia to their work. It’s like the 80s at times… only way more muscular.
Anberlin really brought it in the songwriting department on this album, too. This is a band whose most intriguing and memorable songs are often their most cryptic, and ever since the highly impenetrable lyrics of their debut Blueprints for the Black Market, they’ve been trying to find a balance between writing songs that are baffling enough to retain the mystery, and writing songs that are straightforward enough to be relateable. For a tour designed to promote their previous album, Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place, they actually turned out to rely heavily on songs from Cities in their setlists, as if they had rediscovered the higher quality of songwriting that Dark Is the Way and their first mainstream release, the almost schizophrenic New Surrender, didn’t quite live up to. But again, this is a small change. A few songs are still straightforward enough to hit you with a huge emotional wallop, but in a powerful way, not in the cliched way that made songs like “The Art of War” and “You Belong Here” stand out as blemishes on their last disc. It just feels like they dug deeper with this one, unafraid of where their long, hard gaze into the troubled human psyche would take them, perhaps even reassured that they would fine genuine moments of lightness along the way.
If I’m making it sound like Vital is essentially Cities, Part II, then I should probably back off slightly and make it clear that Cities still reigns supreme in the Anberlin discography. Vital is remarkably solid from beginning to end, but it doesn’t quite hit the satisfying thematic climax that Cities did in its final run of songs at the end of the album. But Vital is still is a worthy runner-up to that album, and a reminder that Anberlin can still deliver a musically satisfying and thought-provoking rock album without having to rely on any gimmicks at all. It’s not just me who feels this way – nearly every professional review of the album I’ve read thus far seems to consider it a strong return to form, perhaps even an improvement on the form, for a band whose last few albums drew incredibly mixed responses.
You’ll discover early on that drummer Nathan Young is pretty much the band’s MVP on this album. Here, he unleashes an aggressive torrent of percussion, even including the sort of double bass normally reserved for heavy metal songs. The guitars that send fire trails shooting up into the stratosphere are equally aggressive, yet for all of the banging around, Anberlin is as slick and melodic as ever. It’s no easy task to one-up every Anberlin album opener ever (since they always start off with an instant classic), but this one comes darn close, with Stephen Christian‘s edgy vocals posing urgent, desperate questions: “Why do you stay until you see blood?/Why does the weight fall upon us?/We’re on the same side in the same war.” This performance, full of pathos, is interestingly juxtaposed wit the lead-up to the chorus, which adds a “slippery” sort of digital effect to his voice to numb the emotion of an appropriately detached lyric: “I still can’t feel nothing/Just want to hold something/Tell me again what’s real/Tell me again what to feel.” Right away, you can hear how the boiling, enraged essence of rock music collides with the colder textures of electronic music, and the two just feel so absolutely right together.
2. Little Tyrants
The grinding guitars and booming, heavy rhythm section on this one are vintage Anberlin for sure. You could go back and insert this song into Never Take Friendship Personal, and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash, because it’s so up in your face and full of fun little audience sing-along moments, not to mention an excellent guitar solo by the always dependable Joseph Milligan. (“Dead inside! Yours is mine!” Who wouldn’t love chanting along to that with their fists in the air?) One of Stephen’s absolute best vocal performances, emphasizing his ability to stretch a syllable out into several notes while keeping their trademark raspy edge, and it’s a perfect effect for a song that’s all about tearing down a small name with a big ego. Some megalomanic has made himself king of his own little world, and along comes Anberlin, knocking down that imaginary castle and pointing out that this lonely empire isn’t gonna last. I have no idea who or what got these guys so riled up, but it’s a heck of a fun fight song when you’re frustrated with small minds who barricade themselves in their own little ideological corners and refuse to let any dissenting opinions in.
3. The Other Side
I tend to love the results when Anberlin aims for moody ambiance. True, a few missteps on the last few albums of theirs have been due to pacing issues, but there’s a big difference between this band doing a straight-ahead mid-tempo song, and them doing one with a truly haunting texture to it. That texture is established right away, with an electronic keyboard effect that sounds like sonar pings bouncing off of a prepared piano. I know that sounds like crazy talk, but however you describe it, it’s a ghostly effect that works perfectly with a lyric that contemplates an unseen side of our existence. You could call this one of Anberlin’s more “spiritual” songs, since some sort of otherworldly being is calling out from beyond, begging “Love me, love me, why don’t you know me, know me.” The way that the heavy guitars come in and Stephen draws out the words to make them sound they’re full of tearful longing, I have to wonder whether it’s the voice of a Supreme Being that he’s trying to imagine here, or just a lonely person cut off from the rest of the world, perhaps a child with autism or something like that who doesn’t even know how to express his needs in terms that grown-ups can understand. Interpretations will vary, I’m sure, but the ability to do that adds a sort of depth to this song that a lot of moody ballads in this genre don’t have because it’s easier to assume in most cases that the tone is meant to be more romantic. I also love that they don’t go for the typical resolved chord or fade-out at the end – instead the drums break off into a clattering mini-solo while the guitars and keyboards switch to spacey sound effects. It comes out of left field and it helps to ensure that every segment of the song stands out.
4. Someone Anyone
Pointless wars seem to be a bit of a recurring theme on this album. Here is where the band really addresses the futility of being a rebel without a clue head-on, trying almost in vain to be a loud voice of reason in a sea of dissent for its own sake: “Someone, someone tell me what we’re fighting for/Anyone, anyone, anyone can start a war/No one can walk away/No one can walk away truly alive.” The song strongly relies on the word “we” instead of pointing fingers at others, so one can take it as a comment on potentially many different cultures: America. Christians. Political parties. The modern music industry with all of its divisive, splintered “scenes”. So on and so forth. As Anberlin goes, this one seems to follow the band’s usual template almost to a T, so if not for the addition of the synthesizer zipping right along with the guitar riffs, you might once again think you’ve gone back in time to one of the group’s early albums. That’s not a bad thing, but it makes this otherwise promising single a bit of a safe bet when there are more daring (and yet still highly catchy) choices to be made when considering how to announce Vital‘s presence to the rest of the world.
Up next is one of the more poppy and danceable moments on the record – definitely still a guitar-driven rock songs, but with the big shiny synths front and center, and the rhythm section busting a move full of hi-hats and glimmering sixteenth notes, I start to get fond memories of The Myriad and their breakout single “A Clean Shot”. (Another modern rock band with a solid rhythm section. May their drummer rest in peace.) This is a relatively straightforward song, in that the lyrics seem to be openly confessing a desire for something that a person knows he has no right to stake a claim to, yet he can’t stop himself from fixating on it. About a billion pickup lines disguised as rock songs have been written in this manner (more than a few of them by The Killers, probably another obvious musical reference here), but this one’s different in that the swagger takes a back seat to the humility of realizing one can’t force the other person to say yes or empirically prove why she should: “I want a love that I don’t deserve/I want the gold that I didn’t earn/I want a fire that will never burn.” Frankly, I think “I would be lucky to have you” would be a better sentiment to capture someone’s heart with than “You would be lucky to have me”, but then I was never the type to try to pick someone up at a rock show, so what do I know?
This one really caught me off guard. Anberlin’s written some tragic ballads in their day, but most of them are about looking inward at one’s own darkness. So this one stating pretty clearly that it’s dealing with death or at least a coma right out of the gate was a move that I didn’t see coming. It’s risky, loading up a softer, slower song like this with synths and programmed drums and expecting it to be taken seriously, but this band knows how to pull off “sadly beautiful” without going off the deep end into maudlin excess. So sure, this one feels like some 80s singer could be singing it with his mascara running down his face as he cries, but it’s no less of a genuine tear-jerker for us modern, un-manscaped men. Stephen softly ponders whether this person he’s standing over in a hospital room feels his touch, hears his voice, etc., and since he wonders whether these things have ever happened, that makes me think that the tragedy must have occurred when she was incredibly young – possibly even a newborn. “We are all born the innocent”, he reassures her in the chorus. “We were born to run carefree. You will live on in the hearts of men constantly.” There’s so much tragic loss in those words, and admittedly I was at a vulnerable point where I read the experiences of people I knew personally into it when I first heard it. If you know someone who has lost a child, this one’s gonna hit you really hard, even though I can’t say with total certainty that this is what the song’s actually about.
A bit of the post-breakup anger that fueled most of the band’s previous album rears its ugly head here, bringing us back to the standard look and feel of an Anberlin song, though it should be noted that “par for the course” for this band still yields some reasonably strong material. Whoever it was that took a relationship between two people and made it all about here, she gets a verbal dressing down as Stephen bitterly sings: “Well where do you get off that we revolve around your wants and needs/There’s no way I would change a one time catastrophe.” The chorus has the exact sort of punctuated shouts that I would once again assume are tailor-made for audience participation – lots of fun, but not their most inventive work. The verses capture my interest a lot more, once again putting the band’s rhythm section front and center, this time with the spotlight on bassist Deon Rexroat, who offers up a bouncy riff that could have easily been buried if they’d gone too heavy on the guitars. Even on the songs that, by this album’s high standards, come across as average, there always seems to be an intriguing instrumental part that pops out like that in the midst of a solid instrumental performance by the band overall.
8. Type Three
Due to some obscure song title choices where the title doesn’t even appear in the song, it took me a while to fully appreciate or even differentiate between songs in the back half of this album – not that the material was less enjoyable by any stretch. Listening for the details really helped, because in the midst of the darkly-hued tones that Anberlin applies to most of their songs, I hadn’t fully appreciated how they backed way off on the electric guitars here, preferring the acoustic guitar, piano, and somewhat surprisingly, a horn section as they fleshed out this song’s character. You’re not as likely to notice it without headphones, because the acoustic chords sort of creep into the overall mix and don’t stand out as definitively as they do in songs like “The Unwinding Cable Car” or “The Haunting”. But one underrated aspect of Anberlin as a band has always been their ability to reimagine their songs in an unplugged format, and here is sounds like they started with that acoustic framework and then overlaid all of the studio tricks and dramatic elements. The result is a long, slow build to a solid climax, As Stephen gradually builds a case for trust and faith as a sort of rebuttal to a person who seems to blindly rebel against everything: “I look to heaven to save me/And you call me naïve/I’d rather be a hopeless lover/Than cursed with disbelief/Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, baby.”
Nice little bait and switch here – from the somber piano chords that open the song, you assume you’re gonna get a ballad… then one of Anberlin’s finest industrial-strength rhythms kicks in and suddenly you’re in the midst of one of the densest rockers on the album. The piano just keeps on going with its little somber march as if nothing had changed, reminding me of a similar trick that The Juliana Theory pulled on Emotion Is Dead back in the day. For a song that’s all about the allure of someone you can’t control, it makes sense for it to have the sort of rhythm that clatters along like a runaway locomotive. I find this one interesting because the results are unexpected even though the ingredients are all part of the usual Anberlin formula. The allure of danger seems to be an overarching theme throughout their career, but this may be the song that spells it out most clearly.
10. Modern Age
The band might be repeating itself slightly with this one – the slower, more controlled rhythm paired with the keyboard/guitar riff that zips in and out between the drum hits reminds me of a slightly more subdued “Paperthin Hymn” (which in turn reminded me of “Change the World” when I first heard it). It might be the one moment on the album where Anberlin makes the misstep of being too straightforward, as the chorus pines, “Don’t we all want to belong?/Don’t we all write our own song?/Let our silence brave tonight.” The lyrics speak quite generally about not assuming the future will be the same as the past, and it tries valiantly to be a rousing anthem, but this one admittedly feels like it could have fallen in among some of the lesser material on New Surrender. Musically, it’s got a little more teeth than some of the missteps on that album, so I still can’t lower it to the point where I’m giving it a fully average grade. But it is the one obvious weak spot on Vital.
11. God, Drugs & Sex
One thing we’ve come to expect about the grand finales on Anberlin’s albums is that they will be long and drawn out, and that they will try in some way to subvert our expectations of how to “top” the reigning champion from Cities, “Fin”. New Surrender pulled this off interestingly with the slow, chilling climax of “Miserabile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)”, while Dark Is the Way took a more rock-oriented, but more abstract approach on the somewhat disappointing “Depraved”. Vital‘s addition to the legacy one again tries to go the slow route, kicking into a trance-like, bass-heavy dirge that doesn’t let up for the entire six minutes of the song. This wouldn’t be the first time that Anberlin has been brave enough to write about the after-effects of a drug addiction (see “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen” and “Godspeed”), but the angle of losing a lover who is so far gone that she no longer finds any interest in God, drugs or sex is definitely a new one. I don’t even know what that means, to tell you the truth – I can only assume from Anberlin’s perspective that God becoming meaningless is a bad thing, drugs losing their allure is probably a good thing and sex losing its spark is… a bit of a tossup, depending on the context. Still, to see someone get so numbed out that none of those experiences hold any thrills for them would certainly be an unsettling thing to witness. Stephen gets some help in the vocal department here from Christie DuPree (who is best known as “Eisley‘s little sister”, but who is starting to breakout as a solo artist in her own right and as half of the duo Merriment), and her part-chilling and part-sweet voice contrasts intriguingly with his slow crooning. Interestingly, he never goes for the big finish here – the drums get more bombastic and the keyboards chime louder and louder and seemingly the whole group joins in on gang vocals as the some slowly grows into this big, hulking mass of sound, but the lead vocals remain relatively subdued. While this means that Vital doesn’t end as profoundly as some of their earlier albums did, it does make one wonder about the numbness and loss of control that earlier songs were trying to warn us about with their big, flashing red lights. It’s a fittingly somber conclusion to a sad cautionary tale.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Little Tyrants $1.75
The Other Side $2
Someone Anyone $1.25
Type Three $1.25
Modern Age $.75
God, Drugs & Sex $1.25
Stephen Christian: Vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer
Joseph Milligan: Guitar
Nathan Young: Drums
Christian McAlhaney: Guitar
Deon Rexroat: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.