Forgive me if I seem a bit zany during this review. There has been great upheaval in La Vida de Blake lately. Things started out great: I finally found a girl that liked me enough to let me do that cute thing where you hold hands by interlocking fingers. I heard music everywhere, and that wasn’t only because Pierce Brosnan hit his high note in “SOS.” Aside from this happy fact – we’re soulmates, I can feel it – I was forced to deal with some devastating news: Anberlin has signed to a major label. Put on your black graphic tee and mourn. It’s time to un-bookmark their Myspace and Twitter pages. Well, at least until now there was the slim chance New Surrender would be terrible. Hell, I’d dump Jasmine in a heartbeat if it would make this album contain terrible ballads and safe, music-executive approved radio rock. They’d be back on an indie and they’d be all mine. Of course it’s just my luck that New Surrender rocks with the force of Blueprints and smarts of Never Take Friendship Personal. And worse still, Jasmine found out my father doesn’t own and never has owned a private island near Bermuda. If you need me, just listen for the sobs at Anberlin’s next packed arena concert.
It didn’t take the 10 billion listens I’ve given New Surrender to tell me this, but opening barnburners “The Resistance” and “Breaking” hit with such a precision that radio may actually collapse upon itself. Guitarists Joseph Milligan and new addition Christian McAlhaney pummel and delight with intricate fingerplay. Don’t snap my neck, but this is their record. Case in point, the last 20 seconds of “The Resistance” will spin you around with lightning fast shredding. As my colleague Rich Duncan would say, “Don’t piss your bed!”
Even though the faster songs satisfy the most, we’ve come to expect a certain level of care with the band’s thoughtfully paced rockers. “Retrace” is the first of these mid-tempo jams to bounce us on its knee with Deon Rexroat’s bass and Stephen Christian’s smooth delivery. Christian commands an orchestrated bridge with the lyrics, “Photographs, they haunt me lately / Chasing shadows as the evening takes me / I’m still searching but the picture’s fading.” Perfect ammo for an away message. “Breathe” also slow dances the listener with NTFP-era acoustic guitars and hugely contrasting bass drum kicks. Tinkling percussion, a downtrodden guitar solo and choral “Whoa Oh’s” – my kryptonite when it comes to tearing up – bring the song home in such a way that you’ll never get ballad-itis. Most upbeat rock bands can hide their lack of dynamism behind solos and speed. This song stands out in the open and allows the world to dissect its flaws. Good luck finding any.
OK, yeah, “Feel Good Drag”: not a whole lot has changed (see ya, screaming!), and in my opinion, this isn’t even the best single choice on New Surrender. However, despite its hard-hitting nature, there is just enough mystery to this song. I hardly expect a flop.
Perhaps “Younglife” (and happy-go-lucky “Haight St.” to an extent) is due to a fluke phase when the band wore turtlenecks and played broomball with their church youth group. The song sits stagnant despite fuzzily-produced drums and catchy “la la la’s.” Anberlin pick themselves back up, however, with “Soft Skeletons,” which happens to be one of the darkest songs of their career. Bending guitar segues, eerie electronic noises and Christian laying everything out on the line for lyrics like, “There’s life in your veins / These needles are chains to hold you down / How can you expect to win this war / If you’re too afraid to fight?” serve to wrap the listener in a hazy fog. If you’re not careful, this song will overpower you. Keep your composure, for although we have but one song left, it’s a monumental doozy.
As has been the norm for Anberlin, “Misearbile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)” elongates their trusty formula and seriously turns up the emotion. The song’s apocalyptic subject matter (“The sun will turn dark very soon / Your days are numbered / When there’s blood on the moon”) only makes it more intense. Try to stay stoic once the track fully unleashes its onslaught of guitar solos and Vheissu-sized percussion. While “Misearbile…” may, at its core, be just another lengthy buildup number we’ve heard from the band before, it’s still wonderfully executed – especially lyrically – with drama and grace.
On second thought, a band like Anberlin winding up on the radio may actually save the medium. (Although, if “Misearbile Visu (Ex Malo Bonum)” winds up true, there won’t be much left to salvage.) New Surrender showcases a band still brimming with ideas, a band primed to finally see the audience it has so long deserved. Worry not, there’s plenty of Anberlin to go around.