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Album Review
 
Anberlin - Lowborn Album Cover

Anberlin - Lowborn

Reviewed by
7.5
AnberlinLowborn
Record Label: Tooth & Nail
Release Date: July 22, 2012
This review was written by an AP.net staff member.
I will forever defend the right of a band to go out on their own terms. I’ve said before that I would happily follow any of my favorite artists years past relevance and ages after their creative apexes, but I am equally okay with bands who realize when it’s time to leave the party and decide to give their fans a proper goodbye. There’s something about a very consciously crafted swansong that can just be so perfect when executed correctly. And “the perfect swansong” is precisely what Anberlin are shooting for with Lowborn, their seventh full-length studio album, and their last.

Earlier this year, when Anberlin announced their plans to do one last world tour and record one final album before calling it quits, they sent shockwaves through our community. While this band was never as unanimously loved or respected as the primary “pillars” of our scene (Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, Jimmy Eat World, Thrice, etc.), there are still plenty of members on this site who consider Cities or Never Take Friendship Personal to be seminal classics, or who would name “(*Fin)” as the single greatest song ever recorded. Myself? I’m somewhere in between. I’ve never loved an Anberlin album all the way through, and yet I still consider their best songs (“Naïve Orleans,” “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen,” “The Unwinding Cable Car,” "Inevitable," “Dismantle.Repair.,” “(*Fin),” “Breathe,” “Impossible,” “Take Me (As You Found Me),” and “Self-Starter” would be my hastily thrown together top 10) to be among the top discoveries I’ve made since joining this website seven and a half years ago. In other words, I’ve never been able to form a unanimous opinion either way about this band, but I've enjoyed their run nonetheless.

Then again, the collective opinion on Anberlin’s music has been anything but unanimous since about 2007. That year brought the release of Cities, regarded by most fans as the best version of Anberlin. Darker and more symphonic than the jagged pop punk of Never Take Friendship Personal, (which itself was louder and more mature than the sheeny debut record, Blueprints for the Black Market), Cities is in many ways the sound and legacy that Anberlin have not-too-successfully been chasing ever since. They went in the opposite direction on the pop-centric major label follow-up, 2008’s New Surrender, still their most maligned record, and rediscovered the darkness (but not the heart) on 2012’s mostly dull Vital.

In between, they struck gold with the criminally underrated Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, a record that put their arena rock leanings at the forefront for the first time, thanks largely to superstar producer Brandon O’Brien. Many fans didn’t like Dark is the Way…, citing repetitious lyrics and song structures that didn’t reach the heights of the band’s best material. Those complaints were at least partially valid, but Dark is the Way… also broke Anberlin out of their shell, either by allowing them to deliver mellower, more straightforward variations on their dramatic alt-rock sound (“Art of War,” “Down”) or by wrapping their hooks in skyscraping guitar riffs and Coldplay-esque orchestrations (“Impossible” for the former, “You Belong Here” for the latter).

In many ways, Dark is a precursor to Lowborn, which has the same kind of slow-burning atmosphere that made me love that album more than just about anyone else. See “Armageddon,” a tune with a slow-motion tempo and a calm, measured vocal performance from frontman Stephen Christian. Fractious guitar riffs and rumbling bass lines crackle just beneath the surface, justifying the song’s apocalyptic title, while the key line (“I built this city just to bring it to its knees,” Christian belts, as close as the song ever gets to a chorus) is almost chilling. Much of Lowborn follows “Armageddon” into its fiery furnace of ponderous rhythm, which, after Vital – a record that aspired to be the loudest, most aggressive set of songs these guys would ever record – is a nice breath of fresh air. “Atonement,” for instance, is arguably the album’s best song, an echoing cathedral of balladry that recalls both Cities and Dark with far-off backing vocals and pitch-perfect, memory-laden guitar solo.

Not every attempt at the slower tempos is as successful though: what I loved so much about Dark is that almost every song felt like new territory for the band. “Down” was a reverb-laced acoustic number, while “Take Me (As You Found Me)” was a Goo Goo Dolls-style, 90s adult contemporary radio ballad. Here, a few of the numbers feel a bit more faceless. Take “Stranger Ways,” a somber, 80s-influenced single marked by radiant synths and plentiful guitar delay. The song is fine, especially on a sonic level, but it never really finds an interesting vocal melody, and ends up being more forgettable than the bulk of the disc as a result. Worse is “Birds of Pray,” a dull four-minute slog that feels interminably longer than it actually is. It’s arguably the least inspired Anberlin have ever sounded.

Lowborn is also a mixed bag when the band decides to kick up the tempos and turn up the amplifiers. Opener “We Are Destroyer” is an easy highlight, sparked by a powerful and aggressive hook that starts this album off in virtually the same exact fashion as every other Anberlin album. “It’s just a matter of time, we could lose it all,” Christian bellows on the chorus: it’s fitting introduction for an album pre-dubbed as a final chapter. The propulsive “Velvet Covered Brick” is equally good, with a speaker-shredding guitar line that makes better use of the band’s 80s influence than “Stranger Ways” did. As for late album triumph “Losing it All,” the song is notable if only because of the pummeling drumbeat and the arena-ready guitar solo at the center.

The only “louder” number that really falls flat is “Dissenter,” but it does so in such comically overblow fashion that it singlehandedly brings the album down a notch. Stephen Christian is a terrific frontman, with a voice capable of reaching operatic heights in both pitch and emotion that rival Bono at his best. With that said, though, he’s never been a good screamer, and his shouting on “Dissenter” sounds uncharacteristically bored at best, laughably dumb at worst. Not even a slowed down break section that recalls “(*Fin)” can save the song.

Ultimately, though, it’s not the songs that will make or break Lowborn for most listeners, but the mixing and production. Shortly after revealing that they were in the process of crafting their final record, Anberlin announced that they had assembled a “dream team” of producers to help them make their swansong all that it could be, including longtime producer Aaron Sprinke, Copeland frontman Aaron Marsh, and Underoath producer Matt Goldman. To record the album, the band broke apart, with each member working with a different producer. Goldman tracked the drums in one city, Marsh handled the bass and guitar in another, and Sprinkle teamed with Christian to record the vocals elsewhere. In other words, this was a record built not by a band jamming in the same room or even the same studio, but by a group of guys divided by miles and state lines.

Admittedly, there are worse ways to make records, and all of the individual components actually stand out here much more than they did on Vital, where Sprinkle handled the full production job and blended everything into an indistinct and inorganic wash of sound. (Lead guitarist Joseph Milligan is the biggest beneficiary of the new recording strategy, delivering one stellar solo after another.) Unfortunately, the mixing work on Lowborn (courtesy of Adam Hawkins and Chad Howatt) is shoddy at best, and the vocals often get buried and lost in the mix in such a way that probably would not have happened if everyone had recorded their parts together. It’s a small gripe, but one that means that Christian’s vocal lines don’t always hit as hard as they should, and for an Anberlin record, that's bad news.

Luckily, Lowborn is a fairly strong record on a song-for-song basis, and the added emotional heft of it being a swansong helps to elevate it above the weaker entries in the band’s catalog – even despite its numerous issues. It doesn’t hurt that the album goes out in solid fashion, first with the volcanic “Hearing Voices,” second with “Harbinger,” the band’s luminescent parting shot. The latter is a tad dull as far as Anberlin closers are concerned (this is the band that gave us “Naïve Orleans,” “Dance, Dance Christa Paffgen,” AND “(*Fin),” after all), but it still lays the band’s legacy to rest in an appropriately wistful fashion. “I don’t wanna go now, But I know I’ve got to/For you to remember me,” Christian sings on the refrain. The lyric suggests that the band is breaking up as a means of burning out bright rather than fading away. One could argue that they’ve already descended from their peak days, and that they aren’t really “going out on top” by breaking up now, but regardless of reasoning for departure, Lowborn is an accomplished swansong that will only affirm Anberlin’s legacy for most existing fans. It also won’t win any new fans, but given the circumstances, that’s probably a moot point.

7.5/10
 
Displaying posts 1 - 15 of 129
06:57 PM on 07/21/14
#2
MattRM
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Good review. I disagree with quite a few parts of it (I think "Stranger Ways" is one of the best songs on the album, and I really love the production and the mixing and think it adds to the overall vibe that they were going for with these songs) - but you spelled out your reasoning for everything very well, which is what a good review should do. Glad that you're enjoying the album more than you did a few weeks ago.
07:16 PM on 07/21/14
#3
Ryan Gardner
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Really enjoyed this review. Need to spend a lot more time with this, but I fully agree with all of your comments on Dark Is The Way. It's such a fantastic record IMO.
08:07 PM on 07/21/14
#4
SpencerCoronado
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I like how they kept it to 10 tracks. It feels plenty developed even for a shorter record.
08:18 PM on 07/21/14
#5
cleex3x
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Well written, but disagreed on the score. Album is a strong 8 to a light 9 for me.
09:18 PM on 07/21/14
#6
scooterf
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I think I'm a little surprised at all the hate for Dissenter. I love it. Though I kinda think part of its charm is how polarizing it is - I feel like it was meant to be polarizing. It's literally called Dissenter, so all the, ahem, dissent against it just feels right.

Good call on Atonement. Easily the best song on the album IMO, and very likely deserves to be in the conversation for best 10 Anberlin songs ever... which is a pretty difficult list to crack with their discography.
09:48 PM on 07/21/14
#7
Zac Djamoos
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good review per usual. i like the album more than you, but i can't necessarily disagree with anything you've said.
11:15 PM on 07/21/14
#8
FTank
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Terrific review, Craig. I definitely don't agree with all of it - I like this album quite a bit more than you do - but you consistently produce some of the best work on this website. Well done.

Really enjoyed this review. Need to spend a lot more time with this, but I fully agree with all of your comments on Dark Is The Way. It's such a fantastic record IMO.
I back this; I love that record too.

Well written, but disagreed on the score. Album is a strong 8 to a light 9 for me.
I agree with this rating.
11:43 PM on 07/21/14
#9
FTank
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Also, I like "Birds of Prey" a lot
06:50 AM on 07/22/14
OverSlyZed
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Well written, but disagreed on the score. Album is a strong 8 to a light 9 for me.
I think the score is too high....5-6 at best
06:54 AM on 07/22/14
Craig Manning
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Good review. I disagree with quite a few parts of it (I think "Stranger Ways" is one of the best songs on the album, and I really love the production and the mixing and think it adds to the overall vibe that they were going for with these songs) - but you spelled out your reasoning for everything very well, which is what a good review should do. Glad that you're enjoying the album more than you did a few weeks ago.

I like all of the elements of "Stranger Ways," it just doesn't come together into a compelling song for me. But thanks for the comments: I'm glad I've come around on this a lot too. It would be a shame not to enjoy their final album.

Really enjoyed this review. Need to spend a lot more time with this, but I fully agree with all of your comments on Dark Is The Way. It's such a fantastic record IMO.

Thanks man. Dark has, I think, become one of the most underrated records of the decade so far around these parts. I think they did a lot of interesting things with that one that they didn't try on other albums, and I think working with a completely different producer was good for them.

I like how they kept it to 10 tracks. It feels plenty developed even for a shorter record.

A lot of my favorite records this year have been really streamlined and concise. I like that about this one as well. Granted, Anberlin have never made long albums, but Cities could stand to lose a few minutes, IMO.

Well written, but disagreed on the score. Album is a strong 8 to a light 9 for me.

I've given four albums 9s this year. I don't think this one is on that level, but cool if you're enjoying it that much. I'm sure you won't be the only person to disagree with the score, haha

good review per usual. i like the album more than you, but i can't necessarily disagree with anything you've said.

Thanks dude. I expect the "I like the album more than you" response will be common in this thread. Typically, AP.net has been very kind to Anberlin (too kind, in most regards), so I thought I would try my hand at reviewing their last record and give a different perspective. People will probably look at it and say that it's the lowest score we've given an Anberlin record, but oh well.

Terrific review, Craig. I definitely don't agree with all of it - I like this album quite a bit more than you do - but you consistently produce some of the best work on this website. Well done.

Thanks brother, I really appreciate that.

Also, I like "Birds of Prey" a lot

That's the only one that doesn't have any redeemable qualities for me, haha. It's just a snoozer.
07:09 AM on 07/22/14
cleex3x
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I've given four albums 9s this year. I don't think this one is on that level, but cool if you're enjoying it that much. I'm sure you won't be the only person to disagree with the score, haha
.

I'm a borderline Stan for the band so I'm absolutely loving the LP, but I hear you. I like your writing.

and I couldn't agree more with your Dark Is The Way thoughts. No idea why the album gets hated on, SO much better than New Surrender.
07:17 AM on 07/22/14
Gin
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"Unfortunately, the mixing work on Lowborn (courtesy of Adam Hawkins and Chad Howatt) is shoddy at best, and the vocals often get buried and lost in the mix".

<- Thats my main problem so far with the record. Although I'm a fan of their faster, guitar driven songs, I usually can appreciate most of their slower tracks as well, but because of the production, where the vocals never get a chance to shine, most songs seem to blur together for me.
07:25 AM on 07/22/14
Cody Nelson
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You should honestly write a book.
07:34 AM on 07/22/14
Mattylikesfilms
If You Dig Up The Dead...
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I agree with this review for the most part but I highly disagree about Vital. That record is (IMO) their best.

I especially love their closer "God, Drugs, and Sex". You should revisit that album one more time.

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