Anberlin is one of those bands that has built up a “day one purchase” reputation with me over the course of their previous five albums. That said, I was not expecting much from their sixth album, Vital. Their last effort, Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place, while good, seemed like the band had hit their comfort zone and was content to stay there. I expected Vital to be an exercise in further laurel-resting.
Boy, was I in for a shock.
The first track, “Self-Starter,” begins with a tiny little tinkle played on keyboard before erupting into an absolutely furious snare blast. From there, the track takes off into a charging, galloping rock number. The momentum carries forward into the next track, “Little Tyrants,” with its “All hail the king!” refrain. The band sounds hungry again. This honestly sounds like a debut album, which is quite a feat for a group of guys that have been playing together for ten years.
Then, on the third track, they start experimenting. Anberlin have never shied away from incorporating atmospherics into their sound, but here they allow the electronics and keys to take center stage “Other Side” starts out with a less-rock-more-pop sound, being entirely driven by electronics. The band does kick in later, and the track ends with some fun, show-off-y drumming.
For the entirety of the album, the band continues this trade-off between driving rock tracks and electronics/keyboards, sometimes within the same song. The drumming is tight, energetic, and inventive. The guitars are, as expected from Anberlin, deceptive. If you just groove along with the songs, the guitar riffs seem very simple. However, if you listen closely, there’s a surprising amount going on.
The highest compliment that I can pay the guitarists (lead guitarist Joseph Milligan, and rhythm guitarist Christian McAlhaney) is that their guitar lines always serve the songs, rather than the other way around. They are certainly lacking in pyrotechnics, but are always tasteful. Bassist Deon Rexroat (is it just me, or does that sound like something Scooby-Doo would say?) fits right in, adding the low end, but very rarely coming forward in the mix.
Singer Stephen Christian provides his heartfelt vocals in anything from a croon to a falsetto to a full-throated bellow. Lyrics range from relationship issues to social critiques. One of the things I’ve always loved about Anberlin is that, for all of their numbers about broken, hurting people, the songs are always delivered in a way that provides a glimmer of hope, rather than the cynicism and bitterness so prevalent amongst modern rock bands. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just that, while you’re in your own personal hell, someone cares about you.
See the album closer, “God, Drugs, and Sex” for a great example of this. Anberlin has a made a sort of tradition of making their album closers these grandiose, multi-tiered songs, and this one is no exception. They enlist the help of silky-voiced vixen Christie DuPree to deliver a heartbroken back-and-forth between the concerned boy and the emotionally broken girl, ending in a huge, rock ending, complete with gang vocals.
Vital stands as Anberlin’s mission statement for their career from here on. Rather than sitting in their wheelhouse, they blast out of the gate with a new, focused determination, letting the world know that, while their core sound remains intact, they will continue to grow and expand as musicians and songwriters. They have brought in new influences and nuances to craft an album as big and energetic as their ambitions. I look forward to seeing where they will take us next.