Key Tracks: “We Are Destroyer,” “Stranger Ways,” “Atonement,” “Hearing Voices”
On Anberlin’s breakout 2008 major label debut, New Surrender, frontman Stephen Christian passionately sang that he wanted to “burn out brighter, brighter than the Northern lights.” Flash forward to 2014, and after 11 years of musical output, Anberlin has decided that it’s better to burn out bright than to fade away. To that end, the Florida quintet will be disbanding at the year’s end and has offered us its seventh and final album, entitled Lowborn, as a bittersweet parting gift. The album captures Anberlin in its purest form, beholden to neither fan nor label expectations, and the results are as polarizing as they are marvelous.
Anberlin has always operated as an intriguing musical chimera, proudly carrying the banner of alternative rock while also wearing an eclectic mix of other influences on its sleeve, including an unabashed love for the 1980’s. This much was evident for anyone paying attention to the band’s choice of cover songs, from its take on Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” for Fearless Records’ Punk Goes… series to the faithful version of New Order’s “True Faith” that was released to radio as a single during New Surrender’s album cycle. Lowborn now finds Anberlin fully embracing the dark, electronic-tinged new wave motifs that were previously only hinted at on albums like Cities and Vital while continuing to maintain the unique melodic and structural elements that define any Anberlin record.
Lead single “Stranger Ways” is, in many ways, the culmination of everything that Anberlin has learned about strong songwriting in its time as a musical unit: The lonely, reverb-soaked notes of lead guitarist Joey Milligan’s instrument ring out against a steady, understated beat. Christian’s emotive croon dominates the moody soundscape as electronic flourishes flutter up and down the backbone of the chorus. It’s a textbook example of less being more, as the band allows the music to slowly wash over listeners rather than crash into them. Lead-in track “Armageddon” operates much the same, slowly building a sinister atmosphere over insistent, syncopated melodies until it swells and bursts at the chorus. These tracks may burn slower than others, but are just as satisfying when they hit their ignition points.
That said, Lowborn is by no means short on octane, exemplified by the urgent introductory track “We Are Destroyer”; reminiscent of a beefier, yet more nuanced “Dead American” (found on Devotion, the deluxe reissue of Vital), it carries on Anberlin’s proud tradition of anthemic, in-your-face album openers and deserves to be a staple on the band’s final headlining world tour this fall. Elsewhere on Lowborn, the frenetic chorus of “Velvet Covered Brick” finds drummer Nathan Young at his most murderous, while stand-out cut “Hearing Voices” marries the rousing energy of Cities’ best songs with the delay pedal used so effectively on 2010’s “Impossible” and features some of Christian’s best vocal work to date.
The band also uses the opportunity afforded by Lowborn being its swansong to take a number of artistic risks, nowhere more apparent than on the divisive “Dissenter.” For all those who bristled at the omission of one screamed line when the band re-recorded “The Feel Good Drag” in 2008, Christian aims to make up for it (and then some) with this menacing, bombastic track dominated by his static-distorted growl; as an exercise in pure adrenaline, some are sure to find it abrasive, while those who make it to the hauntingly poignant bridge will understand the song as a study in contrasts. Meanwhile, fans looking for more easily-digested experimentation can instead turn to “Birds of Prey”, which revolves around a synthesizer line that Imogen Heap should notice has gone missing any day now, or find refuge in the spirited countermelodies and deliberately-placed keys of the uptempo “Losing It All.”
Through all the hills and valleys of Lowborn, one thing made abundantly clear is that Anberlin is a band that appreciates not only the art of evolving music, but those who allow it to evolve its art in the first place; “Atonement,” located midway through Lowborn’s runtime, is the band’s love note to fans who have supported it from inception to farewell. The ethereal track is bathed in the glow of bright synthesizers, anchored by a pulsating bass line, and buoyed by shimmering acoustic guitars that lift Christian’s arresting vocal melodies to new heights as he reflects on the journey behind him: “I’ve seen faces I may never see again / I’ve been places I never could have dreamt / I’ve touched hands with those who touched me / Seen the marks, the skeleton keys.” Milligan’s solo at the song’s bridge is the ribbon that ties together what will be remembered as one of Anberlin’s finest compositions, and which cements the group as one of the most humble, deserving acts in the history of modern rock.
To be sure, Lowborn is a grower. Many of the tracks don’t hit with the same immediate ferocity as those on Vital or wield the populist appear of Anberlin’s output for Universal Media Group. Yet there is an undeniable strength in the dynamic nuance of Lowborn that grows with familiarity. The hooks are still there – but they’ll find you, not the other way around. And this is how Anberlin shows that it is not merely a radio rock outfit, but a collective of bona fide artists intent on leaving an indelible mark on the musical landscape. “We’ll live forever,” promises Christian on album closer “Harbinger”; looking back on the legacy that Lowborn beautifully endcaps, it’s a promise Anberlin has already kept.