In Brief: In closing the book on Anberlin, the band delivers a heartfelt (and sometimes surprisingly aggressive) set of songs that make it clear the band members see this as a beginning and not and ending. It’s not quite the grand finale I would have hoped for, but it’s a strong epilogue to cap off a remarkably solid discography. There’s a little something for everyone here, though fans of Vital and Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place will probably respond to it best.
I always make a point of commending bands who choose to end well. Let’s be honest, nobody likes it when their favorite things come to an end. So of course my voice was going to be among the big chorus of “NO!!!!!!!”s when Anberlin announced earlier this year that they were preparing to close up shop for the foreseeable future. They’ve been a remarkably consistent band over the last decade or so, starting off with an already robust rock sound that seemed to find a happy medium between the stadium-sized melodrama of the 80s and the no-nonsense approach of the “alternative rock” revolution in the 90s, while remaining mostly untethered to the sound of early 2000s mainstream rock that was quickly going out of style. They’ve been quite dependable from album to album, always delivering the hard-hitting rockers that fans know them for, while stepping carefully forward with each album, making forays into more acoustic, electronic, or experimental territory but without ever making such a drastic change that any of their albums felt like a break from their old sound. Watching Anberlin mature over the years without losing that youthful fire in their bellies has been a relief to this writer, given how many other groups I’ve watched crash and burn as they tried to revise their sound to keep up with the times. It’s fitting that if they had to break up the band (which sounds like it’s happening for personal reasons, perhaps the growing family responsibilities that eventually catch up to most bands who go on for this long), they’re at least doing so with a final album and tour, because a long and heartfelt goodbye always beats a sudden and chaotic one.
Lowborn, the band’s final album, was clearly designed as a farewell to fans. It isn’t overtly nostalgic (though I’m sure their final tour will probably be), but instead it’s an album that shows the sort of continued growth of a band that I’d just expect to keep on going if I didn’t know the story behind it. The synths and programming that colored Vital without thoroughly dominating that record make a reappearance here, though tempo-wise, Lowborn retreats slightly from the almost entirely up-tempo pace of that album, instead finding its footing in a lot of the mid-tempo and more emotional material heard on albums like Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place or their Magnum Opus Cities. The shifts in tone from song to song are a little more noticeable as a result, but not to the point where anything feels out of place. It’s simply the first record they’ve been able to make completely unfettered by notions of what their label would want to push to radio, or what they’d have to keep playing live for endless years to come, etc. It’s an honest snapshot of where they seem to be at now, tired from the years of relentless giving back to their fans, but proud of where they’ve been and excited to be going out on a high note. You can hear the tension between not wanting a beautiful thing to end and acknowledging when it’s time to move on in several of these tracks, while others seem to purposefully play up the more aggressive aspects of tearing down something you’ve built and starting over from scratch, perhaps for the first time getting some things off of their chest that had been bothering them about the weird “Is this Christian rock?” niche they’ve been occupying all this time.
Now, as much as I enjoy Lowborn – seriously, there isn’t a dud track in the entire lot – there are times when it feels a tad rushed. Not that I think the band didn’t put their full creative energy into each and every one of these 10 tracks. But its reach isn’t as “epic” as some of their past albums, which is most notable in the modest length of each track. Past Anberlin albums, all except for their very first one, could be counted on to have these long, brooding finales that left you feeling something. And this album closes on no less of an emotional tone, but also one that feels a bit incomplete, like there was a big finish coming just around the corner but then they decided to leave us hanging. I suppose that once a band’s got amazing tracks like “Fin” up its sleeve, it might be foolhardy to try to top what was already over-the-top. So they might be intentionally subverting their own habit of going for “the big epic finish” just so that we’re not tempted to make those comparisons in the first place. I don’t really know. As the record winds down and I wonder if this is truly the last we’ll ever hear from Anberlin, I have to admit it’s like spending the last day with a flongtime friend who is moving to some faraway city – you’re glad they could squeeze in a final meal and conversation with you, but it pales in comparison to your memories of the absolute best times you spent together. Still, when all is said and done, you’re glad you got to say goodbye to them at all, even more so with a reprise of some of your favorite aspects of hanging out with that person.
(If I had to pick one thing about this final record that I’m really not happy about, I suppose it would be the horrendous album art, which as several fans have pointed out, looks like someone just gave King Midas a prostate exam. Thankfully there are other variants of the album cover in which the hands held up aren’t covered in what I’m assuming is molten jewelry. To be honest, brilliant cover art was never really Anberlin’s strong suit to begin with. Moving on.)
1. We Are Destroyer
Is it weird that I think the busy electronics at the beginning of this song sound like the opening of a news broadcast? I suppose it’s fitting in light of this song’s abrupt little news flash that we’re selfish people. “If all we are is just what we’ve earned/We are the destroyers!”, Stephen Christian cries out in the chorus of this action-packed song which, despite what the synthesized intro may lead you to believe, is as action-packed as pretty much every Anberlin album opener back to the beginning of time. It’s Anberlin by numbers, almost to a fault, since you can pretty much tell where the entire thing’s headed once you get past the first verse and chorus, based on past performance. And no doubt, the band is at the top of their game with slicing guitar riffs, rapid-fire lyrics and exciting drum fills. But for some reason, the sense of familiarity here makes me prefer it slightly less than some of this album’s more unusual offerings. Still a solid song; still bound to get my eardrums ringing when I see them live on their final tour next month.
A hint of risk-tasking is seen in this foreboding song, which breaks with Anberlin’s usual tradition of “Hit ’em hard with a big rocker at the beginning, then give ’em the poppier single that still kicks butt guitar-wise”, briefly halting the momentum of the album to start of with brooding, chilly synths and programmed drums, almost as if they were veering into Nine Inch Nails territory. It’s a controlled burn for sure, slowly bringing in the guitars which grind like precise machines, gradually ramping up the energy, even sneaking a few dubstep-inspired “wub wub”s in there, as if to troll the haters. What was cool and calculated suddenly becomes a world set ablaze, with Stephen in the center, playing the raging pyromaniac who knows he’s responsible for starting World War III. “I built this city just to bring it to its knees”, he confesses, and while we know the man behind the mic isn’t anywhere near as diabolical as the character he plays in this song, it could be an interesting meta-commentary in light of the band’s decision to dismantle itself. It’s a possible reference to either one of the world’s most hated rock songs (“We Built This City”) or the band’s own album Cities, and either way it’s deliciously subversive.
3. Stranger Ways
It’s not normal for the more melancholy, mid-tempo type ballad material to stand out as an immediate favorite more so than the numerous rockers that will inevitably surround it on an Anberlin record – I think the last time that happened to me was “The Unwinding Cable Car” on Cities (my all-time favorite song by the band even though it isn’t representative of their overall sound). It happened again here, though this song actually has quite a brisk pace for what my brain is identifying as a “mellower song”, starting off with moody electric guitar and adding drum pads and synths not long after, to give it than “lovelorn 80s crossover radio hit” sort of feel. Plenty of songs have been written in the “I know we just met, but I swear I’m in love” department, and this one approaches it with an appropriate amount of danger, as if knowing it’s unnatural to declare this sort of love to an undying stranger, but going for it anyway because the guy is just that lonely and desperate. That’s my interpretation, anyway. “Stranger things have happened, stronger men have answered. A little bit closer to knowing you.” It’s like the guy knows he’s going into the whole thing on a wing and a prayer, but when else is he gonna get the chance? Come to think of it, that’s pretty much all of us when we’re too young and naive to really know what love is. Despite the highly synthetic nature of the song, the drums and guitars keep it lively, making sure it’s clear that genuine human hands are playing those notes rather than them being programmed into machines.
4. Velvet Covered Brick
The second fast-paced rocker on the album may seem a bit odd due to the big, glistening synth melody that floats atop its heavy guitar riffing – without it, you’d easily mistake the song for a number of other ones Anberlin came up with pre-Vital. At any stage in the band’s career, I could happily listen to guitarist Christian McAlhaney and drummer Nathan Young go for broke like they do here. It sounds like both of them have upped their game, knowing that this might be the last record that they get to make together. I wouldn’t call this “metal” by any stretch of the imagination, but Young puts the bass pedal into overdrive and it’s clear he’s been learning from some of the pros. And McAlhaney gets a white-hot solo on par with some of his best. Lyrics-wise, I have no clue what the title of this song is all about. Stephen’s lyrics are somewhat blurred by all the layers of sound as well, making the chorus difficult to understand. So that bogs the song down a little bit. Reading the lyrics, it appears to be about candy-coating harsh news, such as the line “Death comes to us all too quick”, but I don’t really understand the conversation between a guy and an apparently nihilistic or even suicidal girl that seems to be happening here.
The emotional centerpiece of the album spells out pretty clearly how family ultimately outweighed rock stardom on the list of priorities, thus giving the band a reason to wrap things up. This is a sentimental song, for sure, and it’s got one of Anberlin’s most memorable melodies, though it doesn’t quite go into “unplugged mode” like “Inevitable” or “Down” or the aforementioned “Cable Car”. Acoustic guitar is present, intermingling with strong percussion and synths and one of Stephen’s best vocal performances, putting the cryptic apocalyptic musings aside and simply stating, “Don’t want to be here, don’t want to be here without you/I need to know you, I need to know you believe in me.” This could well have been the band’s swan song – it almost feels like a closing thought as it fades out. It’s a pretty good summation of how they’ve seen so many faces and made so many allies and had so many humbling experiences during their time as a band, but they’d trade it all in an instant for the people back at home, the ones holding down the fort who mean the most of them. It’s definitely an “Awww!!!” moment, but that doesn’t stop it from kicking butt musically.
6. Birds of Prey
I’ve noticed a pattern on this album, in which a lot more songs than the band’s usual will start off mellow and/or experimental, and then burst forth with energy midway through, either suddenly or gradually. This one seems like another synthetic experiment at first, being highly dependent on a maudlin synth melody, and putting plenty of cavernous reverb on Stephen’s voice – let’s face it, the guy is a pro at making the loneliest and most anguished of situations sound appealing. Old memories are haunting him here, and he’s teetering on the brink of sanity, and things just get more intense when the heavy guitars and live drums break in midway through. “Hold on to the light, let go of the dark” becomes his mantra toward the end, but we’re not sure as the song dies down whether he’s managed to find true relief from the madness.
HOLY CANNOLI, BATMAN! I’ve heard some pretty intense songs from Anberlin in the past, but nothing compares to this one. The “Go-for-broke” attitude they took on this final recording is no more apparent than it is here – Nathan’s laying down an absolutely sick drum beat, Christian’s firing off these chopped-up guitar riffs that spray like machine gun fire, and Stephen is screaming every single word of the song at the top of his lungs. Actually, he sounds distorted and a bit hoarse, almost as if he was shouting through a bullhorn while fighting off a throat infection. Normally, Anberlin hits that sweet spot where they’re not quite as heavy as the screamo bands but don’t have all their edges dulled for radio like a lot of bands that had more mainstream success than them. They’re a nice happy medium that rocks hard, but doesn’t scare your girlfriend. Here, all bets are off, and just to make the whole thing even more subversive, the chorus transforms that speedy rhythm into a demented dance beat, which in my mind makes it downright irresistible. What’s got the band so pissed off that they decided to just go all-out here? Anything and everything. Probably the years and years of fans and record execs and publications telling them they’re too religious or not religious enough or that they don’t quite fit in some other way. And this song basically says, screw all that, you will not tell us how to behave. It’s hard to make out everything he’;s screaming, but get a load of this: “I can’t clothe your back forever!/I’m dissenter from you socialists!/How can you say ‘non-believer’/When the sand runs from your fingers?” Just to make things that much more perverse, the bridge of the song drops into this sudden cease-fire, where it’s calm and melodic for a change, much like the bridge of “We Owe This to Ourselves”, but with lyrics, something to keep the song from feeling dead in the water. Just when you’ve caught your break, the band just rips right back into it as loudly as possible. I’ll admit that the screaming pretty much all the way through does get a bit old after a few repetitions of the chorus. But seriously, this one is gonna kick so much ass in concert.
8. Losing It All
it seems quite abrupt when the sadistic workout of “Dissenter” comes crashing down on its final scream, leading into the sparse drum beat that opens this song. Again, I’m expecting something more chill, and the band exceeds expectations by wrapping sentimental feelings within musical triumph. They pull a trick similar to Vital‘s “Orpheum” here – slow piano melody meets a rhythm that suddenly takes off running, as if to say “We can play a ballad at rock anthem speeds if we dang well please”. It works wonders – the sentiment that it’s worth losing everything to be with the one you love has been played a million times in pretty much all genres of popular music, but the band sells it by going for broke, not letting up on the drum fills or the searing guitar melodies just because holding back would somehow make it more radio-friendly. It’s perfectly melodic and catchy as it is in this fast-paced, aggressively romantic form.
9. Hearing Voices
On that earlier topic of whether Anberlin is a “religious” band? They’ve always maintained that the members are Christians but that the band has no religious agenda. With that being the case, a songwriter who believes in God is usually going to be haunted enough by the concept that it’s bound to come up in songs here and there, and with the whole “say what you feel and who cares what anyone thinks” M.O. on this final record, it’s not surprising to hear this song that elaborates a bit more on those beliefs than we’ve heard in their past songs: “Everyone wants to see Heaven/But no one wants to say goodbye/Everyone wants to see Heaven/But no one wants to die.” It’s in keeping with the overall theme of this album – that you often have to lose something you love in order to gain something even greater. It doesn’t hurt that this one is another loud and proud anthem, with the drums all up in your face and the synth and guitar melodies ringing out like sirens above it all. One might accuse them of having a bit of an “agenda” here, but it comes across more as “things that are on my mind that I can’t help but muse about” rather than “telling everyone what they should believe”, so I’m okay with it.
The bittersweet, almost dirge-like guitar melody that starts this one off kind of puts me in denial. This can’t really be the end! Anberlin is in full lighter-waving mode here, scaling back the heaviness heard throughout much of the record and letting a gentle vocal melody and some programmed drums guide the way. It’s a simpler recipe than most of their songs, and they don’t draw this out to five minutes plus like they do on their most memorable album closers, which is why I get the feeling of things ending more abruptly than I want them to. That shouldn’t discredit the final thoughts expressed in this song, which is bound to have fans struggling to hold back manly tears as the backing vocals chant “We’ll live forever, forever” while Stephen croons “I don’t want to go now, but I’ve got to/For you to remember me in this light.” Shoot, these might as well be the dying words of a battlefield hero in one of those totally unrealistic, but totally awesome action movies where the good guys get like five minutes to deliver a soliloquy after being mortally wounded. Stephen’s wringing every last bit of emotion out of this one, and I really, really wish they’d just allowed themselves to live within their final words for a little while instead of letting it trail off an on unresolved note at around the 4:30 mark. I’m tense at that last second, holding my applause, waiting for an encore. I suppose if this song precedes “Fin” when they play it live, that might resolve the musical tension. But still, I commend the band for their commitment to ending well, and a merely good finale shouldn’t diminish the power of a mostly excellent final album overall.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
We Are Destroyer $1.25
Stranger Ways $2
Velvet Covered Brick $1.25
Birds of Prey $1.25
Losing It All $1.75
Hearing Voices $1.50
Stephen Christian: Vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer
Joseph Milligan: Guitar
Nathan Young: Drums
Christian McAlhaney: Guitar
Deon Rexroat: Bass
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: