For the past few years, the musical journey alt-rock band Anberlin has reflected what every band hopes for, and what we as rock music fans love to see: every album building on the positives of the last one, while the band itself follows a natural evolution and growth. Vital, Anberlin’s latest release, falls right into that evolutionary path, and thus may very well be the band’s most masterful work to date.
For this record, Anberlin continues its trek away from alt-emo toward more of an arena-rock sound—but actually, the first thing fans may notice is a strong infusion of electronic elements, both in the heavy synths and loops and in the occasional effecting of Stephen Christian’s vocals. But lest you be concerned that the band is drifting into EDM, make no mistake: this is no genre shift. The band turned to their first producer Aaron Sprinkle to take the helm of this project, and this move definitely paid off. Adding electronics can be risky for a rock band because it’s so easy to over-produce them; but the production value of Vital allows the electronics to enhance and color the sound while maintaining a raw sense of presence. The result: a solid, anthem-rock album, with just enough electronic influence to make it tasteful and impactful.
Impactful—that’s a great word to describe the overall vibe of Vital. The first ten seconds of the opening track “Self-Starter” is about as quiet as the music gets—followed by an immediate barrage of heavy drums and chunky guitars. The high energy continues into “Little Tyrants,” a driving rock anthem destined to evoke “oh-oh-oh” chants and fist pumps from live audiences everywhere—along with a blazing guitar solo that dares you not to completely lose it in public.
Similar fist-pumping rockers can be found in songs like “Someone Anyone” and “Desires,” while the keyboard riff on “Intentions” provides an interesting diversion likely to give you 80’s flashbacks. The midway obligatory ballad “Innocent,” while maybe a bit predictable in the track list, actually works quite well, offering a welcome break from the intensity of the earlier tracks—and it is also a bit of an 80’s flashback, by the way.
The album isn’t without its imperfections. While there aren’t any tracks I’d call “bad” by any stretch, “Other Side” and “Type Three” are fairly ordinary tracks that suffer the malady of being sandwiched in with infinitely stronger offerings, which designates them to the unwelcome role of “fillers.” But their sacrifice ends up giving the record breathing space, if nothing else. (If every song had the impact of “Little Tyrants,” the album would be utterly exhausting.)
There are many Anberlin fans who deem 2007’s Cities to be the band’s tour-de-force, a measuring rod for other albums to live up to. Not only can Vital stand toe-to-toe with that earlier project, but it has the added advantage in that Anberlin has matured greatly as a band since Cities was released. Well-crafted, full of angst, passion and incredible musicianship, Vital easily creates a new benchmark for a band that just keeps getting better with time.