Anberlin leads a class of bands that is difficult to explain from a marketing perspective. 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 emo (indie rock) underground that it is inexplicable how they still fly under the national radar. Last year's Cities, the near-flawless culmination of their previous 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 No. 19 on the Billboard 200 and made a strong showing in the iTunes bestselling albums list. Still, Anberlin has yet to launch a charting single on mainstream radio.
Fellow acts on their former label, the formerly "renegade" Christian rock house Tooth & Nail, have also had a trying time with major-label debuts. So it is with some trepidation that loyalists watch Anberlin release their debut on Universal Republic, the somewhat stuffily titled New Surrender.
Long-time fans of 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 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, this time titled "The Resistance." 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. Singer and songwriter Stephen Christian's versatile voice sells the upper-register, barn-burning chorus, and vague, well-worn references to riot and revolution as spiritual allusions 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; in "The Resistance," he's at the drum-rolling, stick-flailing top of his game.
"The Resistance" and last year's "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 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 earlier albums. Track after track 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 overshadow any rock track they're likely to meet on mainstream radio.
Though many of New Surrender's tricks are actually throwbacks to previous efforts, 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 the pulsating disco rhythm so fashionable in indie rock lately. 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 shines like Cities' epic choir-backed closer "Fin."
On album four, it's most remarkable to see how unified Anberlin has remained in its six-year career. Loved and over-referenced for taking the alternative rock formula seriously enough to infuse it with genuine 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 provides their new acquaintances a respectable summary.