ANBERLIN LEAD a class of Christian bands that is difficult, from a marketing perspective, to explain. They boast an army of die-hard fans large enough to generate consistent commercial success, came of age on the roster of forward-thinking Tooth & Nail Records, and have released single after single that simply begs for national blowup. Anberlin so commands the AbsolutePunk niche (that itself no small feat), that it is simply inexplicable how under-the-mainstream-radar they still fly. Last year’s Cities, the near-flawless culmination of their previously here-and-there flashes of promise, rammed hard against the brick wall that has stood between nearly every strong Tooth & Nail act and mainstream success: it debuted at number nineteen on the Billboard 200, and made a strong showing in iTunes bestselling albums list. Still, Anberlin has yet to launch a charting radio single and, if you toss out their name in a crowded elevator (I tried it), all you’ll likely get is a befuddled “Who?”
Fellow acts on their former label, the used-to-be-renegade Christian rock house Tooth & Nail, have also had a trying time with major-label debuts (their friends Mae, excellent on Tooth & Nail, made a tepid album on Capitol Records and were dropped almost immediately). So it is with some trepidation that Anberlin loyalists watch their boys release their debut on Universal Republic, the peculiarly-titled-for-a-crossover-band New Surrender.
Long-time listeners of a previously-successful indie bands are likely to hear major-label debuts as commercialized retreads, and Anberlin won’t be escaping that dilemma on this record. In their defense, their big shot at an introduction to household America is probably not the time to be toying with the sound that has gotten the job done on four records running. New Surrender is without a doubt Cities: Mainstream Rock Edition, but that is hardly the withering characterization it might sound.
Like last time, New Surrender opens with a stunning, rocketing, riot-igniting send-off, except that “The Resistance” knocks “Godspeed” flat on its back, immediately demanding to be named Best Anberlin Track Ever. The guitars have dialed down the fuzz from Cities’ melodic wash to a gritty, razor-edged distortion that is closer to Disturbed’s neighborhood than they’ve ever ventured. Stephen Christian’s unique, versatile voice sells the upper-register, barn-burning chorus, and vague, well-worn references to riot and revolution come more alive than they possibly ever have. Nathan Young, Anberlin’s drummer and youngest member, continues to distinguish himself: on Cities, he played with tricked-out, tripped-up rhythms, and in “The Resistance,” he’s at the drum-rolling, stick-flailing top of his game.
“The Resistance” and “Godspeed” have enough in common to convict Anberlin of self-plagiarism, but it’s difficult to complain about a song executed this flawlessly. New Surrender’s opener is another instance of the band in perfect symmetry, perfect artistic unity—the point of excellence on which Cities made its deepest impression.
Another of Cities’ career-defining marks was its streamlining of the Anberlin consciousness into a series of well-rounded tracks, rather than the loose, often hookless meandering that characterized Blueprints for the Black Market, and to a lesser extent Never Take Friendship Personal. The first tastes of the band’s polished, melodic capabilities emerged on Friendship, particularly the fan favorite “The Feel Good Drag,” which gets an updated treatment on this record. But track after track on Cities spun melodies as addictive as the substances their shady cast of lyrical characters abused. New Surrender continues that trend, wrapping defining Anberlin characteristics into radio-ready rockers that binge on hook and harmony. They’re nothing new—some tracks like “Breaking,” for example, seem to be constructed from snippets of older Anberlin melodies—but they’re at very least satisfying, and will easily overshadow any rock track they’re likely to meet on mainstream radio.
Though many of New Surrender’s tricks are actually Black Markets throwbacks (listen to the way “Disappear” mixes a Cities-esque synth with that old rumbling bass trick), there are a few moments of experiment. After a typical Anberlin intro, a verse backlit by Young’s fantastic drumming, “Blame Me! Blame Me!” launches into a pulsating dance rhythm a la Franz Ferdinand or, more recently, VHS or Beta. A ghostly haze of melody, riff, and pulsating percussion, it’s irresistible. The gentler tracks again, while showcasing Christian’s unique, nuanced singing, tend to drift to the bottom of the mix—none quite shine like Cities’ epic choir-backed finale.
On album four, it’s most remarkable to see how unified Anberlin has remained in their six-year career. Loved and over-referenced for taking the alternative rock formula seriously enough to infuse it with serious creativity, Stephen Christian and Co. have earned themselves a position that their likely impending status as “new artists” will hardly do justice. But unlike Tooth & Nail graduates of the past, their major-label debut is as mature as it should be, and will provide their new acquaintances a respectable summary.
David Sessions is the editor of the Patrol.
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