When a band reaches a certain point in its career, it usually becomes clear what sort of legacy it’s going to carry. Some acts strike gold early on and fade off into oblivion, some remain content to regurgitate the same material over and over, and others are able to develop their own sound and allow it to mature over time. Anberlin falls into that last category. After three impressive records, the band signed to a major label and continued to expand their sound. With Vital, they’ve returned to Aaron Sprinkle for production, gotten more aggressive, incorporated more electronic elements, and written the best album of their career. It’s a little dirty, a little polished, full of hooks and impressive performances, and the perfect showcase of everything the band does better than anyone else. And, after two records that weren’t received quite as well as they should’ve been, it’s every bit as important as the title indicates.
After a brief atmospheric intro, “Self-Starter” kicks Vital off with all of the energy and aggressiveness that has been missing from the band’s past few releases. That’s not to say that those records didn’t have energy, only that this takes it to the next level, and then some. Stephen Christian borders on screaming at points, and every instrumental element is at its peak. Full of melodies that will infiltrate your head and stick for days, this is the perfect track to start the record and get your blood pumping. “Little Tyrants” continues the momentum a little more towards a stricter rock-based route, as Nathan Young’s drums drive everything forward and no shortage of interesting guitar riffs play out. Remember guitar solos? This song has one, and it’s great. Simply great. Christian’s voice has a certain edge that it hasn’t had in years, and it’s impossible to not sing along with the backing vocals in the chorus. As “Other Side” provides the first break in aggression, it also brings out the band’s ’80s influences. Full of atmospheric elements and very layered, this is one of the most interesting tracks on the record from a songwriting perspective.
“Someone Anyone” might be my favorite song Anberlin has ever written. Everything about it is huge, from the vocals to the drum fills to that massive guitar riff. The electronic elements are incorporated perfectly, while Aaron Sprinkle’s production brings the band’s sound back to its prime, where each element shines through to make Anberlin the band greater than the sum of its individual musicians. Insanely catchy, aggressive, dynamic, and passionate, it’s everything I want from this band. Brilliant songwriting and an important message take the track to the highest level. “Intentions” showcases electronic elements alongside crunchy guitars and lots of cymbals. It sounds very much in the vein of the group’s cover of “True Faith,” incorporating influences without losing track of what makes them unique. The lyrics reflect the energy present across the entire album, and the song leads perfectly into “Innocent,” which continues with the electronics in a toned-down setting. Christian’s voice truly shines on this track, stretching out notes in the verses and soaring in the choruses, mastering and alternating between fragility and power throughout.
Dynamic and full of vigor, “Desires” kicks back in with a riff that is trademark Anberlin, while the verses allow space for a bass line to take the spotlight for a bit alongside the vocals. The chorus is a bit reminiscent of “To the Wolves,” and the solo provides the perfect lead-in to an almost-acapella presentation of it, accented on the repeated words for a powerful effect. Joey Milligan and Christian McAlhaney simply shred all over this song. “Type Three” is perhaps the softest track on the record, with lyrics that sound as if they might take a few shots at the band’s former label. If there’s a song from Vital that’s meant to close out live sets, it’s this one. The piano-driven “Orpheum” features a choir made up of winners of the band’s cover contest held earlier this year, and is beautiful in every sense.
“Modern Age” is a dynamic cut, showing off a variety of textures while building up and releasing energy throughout. Atmospheric and full of wonderful harmonies, the production allows for the rhythm section to shine through even with the vocals taking the center stage. Closing the record out is the fantastic “God, Drugs, & Sex,” which is hands-down the band’s best closer since “(*fin).” Long-form and paced perfectly, this is the perfect counterpoint to the perfection of songs like “Self-Starter” and “Someone Anyone.” The powerful dialogue section between Christian and Christie DuPree in the second verse is accomplished effortlessly, and the addition of female vocals makes for an extremely moving, almost intoxicating combination. While the instrumental elements are certainly important in setting the exact right stage and cannot be forgotten, it’s clear that the voices are what elevate this song to true greatness. The flowing, impromptu-sounding nature of both sets of vocals in the middle section is reminiscent of the ending of “(*fin),” while the emerging questioning of the line “would you change it all for me?” and the group-sung “let go, let go of me now” provide the perfect ending for the record. If this doesn’t make its way into future encores, it will be a travesty.
Across Anberlin’s fan base, Cities is widely regarded to be the band’s best record. It could be argued that Cities is the reason New Surrender and Dark Is The Way, Light Is A Place weren’t received or remembered quite as warmly as the band’s earlier work. Cities is my second-favorite album of all time. It is damned near perfection. And Vital is as good as or better than Cities. Vital doesn’t recreate Cities, nor does it try to. While Cities captures youthful energy and presents it maturely, Vital is centered around the expression of experience and presents the power of that perspective with a different sort of energy – aggressive, and even more mature. If it’s possible for a band to have two seminal albums, Anberlin has accomplished that feat with this record. The return to Aaron Sprinkle has allowed the group to sound once more like a band, not merely the sum of its parts. This is the culmination of a group of guys returning to their roots while maintaining everything they’ve learned along the way, coupled with a strong desire to write something objectively great. Vital proves why Anberlin is a band worthy of listing among favorites, and why these are some of the best musicians working in the industry today. If you’ve ever doubted this band, Vital will change your mind. It’s a band doing everything they’re best at, at their highest capacity, and that’s something that simply can’t be beat.