Reflecting On: Anberlin – Cities

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While Cities is widely regarded as Anberlin’s best album, the argument can be made that it never fully received its due. However, it’s quite possible that both the band and its fans would have suffered if it had.

Leading up to 2007, the Florida rock act had quickly ascended the ranks, becoming one of the most revered bands in the scene. Anberlin spent their first two albums, Blueprints for the Black Market and Never Take Friendship Personal, honing their sound and bridging the gap between the popular emo leanings of the time and full-on alt-rock. By the time Cities dropped, it was clear that Anberlin had carved their own niche.

You can buy Cities on iTunes.

You can buy Cities on iTunes.

Cities can’t quite be classified as a concept album, but is certainly far more than a collection of songs. The album’s tracks are intertwined by themes of pain and frustration – an acknowledgement of the depravity that affects every community and relationship. Yet amidst the brokenness lies a will to continue the search for hope.

Not only was Cities a deep thematic success, the album showcased a band that had refined its sound to perfection. Underneath the album’s crisp production lied evidence that Anberlin had become a new leader in the genre, no longer following in the footsteps of others. Even 10 years later, Cities sounds unique for its time. If it were released today, it would still sound just as fresh and compelling.

However, just a few short months after its release, and before fans could fully digest the record, the band announced some shocking news. Having completed their contract with indie label Tooth and Nail Records, the band had been courted and signed by Universal Republic and would return to the studio to begin crafting their major label debut.

Although both the promotional and touring cycles for Cities were cut short, fan excitement for the band heightened. Soon, rumors spread that Universal Republic might re-release Cities to a wider audience or that the band might even re-record the album with new guitarist Christian McAlhaney now in their ranks. The events that followed are almost stranger than fiction, but somehow elevated the band to heights that no one expected.

There would be no major label lionizing of Cities. Instead, Anberlin released “Feel Good Drag” in the summer of 2008 as the lead single for New Surrender. The re-recorded song from 2005’s Never Take Friendship Personal left fans befuddled, as did the rushed writing and recording of the new album itself. Before Cities had even cooled off, the album had seemingly been replaced with what many perceived to be an inferior product.

However, “Feel Good Drag” became an unlikely breakthrough hit. During its 29-week climb to the top of Billboard’s Modern Rock Chart, the track became a record-breaker, spending more time on the chart en route to #1 than any other single in history. Suddenly a staple on rock radio and MTV, the band were booking large headlining tours, playing bigger venues, and attracting a massive new audience.

From a fan perspective, New Surrender received flack upon its release for feeling cluttered and uneven. While certainly not without its standout tracks, the album seemed to lack sonic direction, but also suffered from being quickly released on the heels of the band’s masterpiece.

In hindsight, there’s no denying that Anberlin’s major label signing and the sudden unexpected success of “Feel Good Drag” overshadowed what the band had accomplished with Cities, but it also changed the lives and careers of the band’s members. Without those events, would the band have been able to experiment to such critical success with 2010’s Dark is the Way, Light is a Place, return to their aggressive roots with 2012’s highly lauded Vital, or been able to exit on their own terms with 2014’s Lowborn?

Without the perceived slight that Cities received in 2007, the conversation surrounding one of the scene’s most successful and respected bands might be much different. Now, a decade later, we can talk about the album with full knowledge that Anberlin achieved a great deal over the course of their 16 year run, and that later albums like Dark is the Way and Vital even rival what the band accomplished with Cities.

Over the course of seven solid studio albums, it is my opinion that Cities is Anberlin’s most cohesive, focused and exemplary release. It features the band’s best song (“Dismantle. Repair.”), the most powerful album closer I’ve ever heard (“*Fin”), and best represents the band’s sound and purpose. However, if the short cycle of Cities meant the extended career and expanded audience of one of my favorite bands, who am I to complain?

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

10 Underrated Anberlin Songs

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Now that Anberlin’s farewell tour is in full swing, many fans are getting to experience their favorite songs from the band’s massive catalogue one final time before they say goodbye. The Florida rock act has been unveiling a setlist composed of anywhere from 20 to 22 songs each night, many of which are classic mainstays coupled with several fan favorites.

However, with such a large number of fantastic albums and memorable songs, it’s impossible for the band to hit everyone’s favorite. That being the case, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to list 10 of the most overlooked and under appreciated songs in the band’s catalogue that surely could have fit anywhere within their final setlist.

There are only a few rules: 1. None of the tracks on our list can be a part of the band’s final setlist. 2. Only tracks from the band’s first six albums can be included, since the band’s latest release, Lowborn, was off limits for the band’s farewell tour.

So go ahead – check out our list. Did we miss your favorite song? Let us know what you think in the replies!

1. “The Haunting”

It’s hard to believe that one band’s b-side could rival the best work of many other bands, but that’s the case in this instance. A leftover from the band’s Cities sessions, “The Haunting” is just that – haunting. A brutal tale of a lover left alone, “The Haunting” is classic Anberlin. The track begins slowly and softly before approaching a crescendo capped by swirling guitars and Christian’s wailing chorus. It’s not just one of the band’s most underrated tracks – it’s one of their best.

2. “Glass to the Arson”

“Readyfuels” gets most of the love from Anberlin’s debut album, Blueprints for the Black Market, but it’s truly this hidden gem that shines brightest. A rock track through and through, “Glass to the Arson” is a fiery song that follows the straightforward formula found throughout Blueprints, but shines with it’s rabid chorus of “Tonight my heart is cold / Lost in your lies, shallow replies / Tonight I’ll just let go / Lost in your eyes, transparent cries”. The song is full of passion and was a sign of things to come for the band.

3. “Hello Alone”

Cities may be Anberlin’s best album, and as such, is full of great tracks. “Hello Alone” may be the most overlooked though, featuring a soaring chorus and beautiful, poetic lyrics that burn right to the soul. A cry for an answer, any answer at all, goes without response until the song’s climactic end. The track fits well within the confine of Cities and adds a beautiful, hopeful chapter to the often painful story that threads its way through the album.

4. “Modern Age”

With Vital, Anberlin vowed to return to their rock roots with a heavy album full of rock and roll anthems. They did not disappoint. “Modern Age” captures this sentiment better that almost any song on the album with it’s crunchy guitars and powerful synthesizers that drive the song from it’s eerie opening. An uplifting track about choosing to rely on each other instead of forging our journey alone, “Modern Age” is a seminal and powerful Anberlin track.

5. “Alexithymia”

This often overlooked track follows “Hello Alone” on Cities and is arguable just as impressive with its deep bass line and plucking acoustic guitar. The fact that this gentle song explodes into a refrain of “There’s more to living than being alive” simply adds to its allure. Christian’s vocal range is astounding throughout, seemingly gliding from low notes to his upper register with ease.

6. “Type Three”

After haunting strings introduce the track, Christian cooly sings, “I have my reasons for the vices I embrace”, leading into one of the most captivating song’s on Vital. A simple synthesizer and keyboard driven track, “Type Three” is full of emotion and pain, bleeding from one moment to the next, offering a respite from the album’s crushing guitars. It’s all topped off with some of Christian’s best lyrics: “I look to heaven to save me and you call me naive / Rather be a hopeless lover than cursed with disbelief”.

7. “Dance, Dance Christa Päffgen”

The first of what would become an Anberlin tradition, this epic closer to Never Take Friendship Personal changes direction and pace multiple times over during a wild seven minute journey. A song that’s as dance-y as it is rocking, as patient as it is urgent, “Dance, Dance” served as a way to show that Anberlin was far more than just your average rock band. The track hinted at the band’s masterful songwriting skills that would become fully exposed on Cities.

8. “Naïve Orleans”

Another great closer, even if it only lasts for four minutes, “Naive Orleans” is one of the most overlooked songs on Blueprints. Christian’s syrupy opening lines of “Come and go now as you please / Your actions write the melodies / To the songs that we sing” before he hits stride with his legendary chorus of “And I finally found that life goes on without you / And the world still turns when you’re not around”. It may be one of the more gentle songs on the band’s debut, but it’s certainly not devoid of passion.

9. “The Runaways”

One of the funnest songs in the band’s collection, “The Runaways” is full of swirling guitars and groovy bass that makes you want to move. A lot. A killer chorus with driving guitars and drums is enough to cause a riot. A song about a runaway lover, the track is infectious and full of fire, even as it tells a somewhat sad tale of a failed relationship.

10. “Closer”

This may be the most epic and overlooked track from Dark is the Way, Light is a Place. The song builds towards it’s massive chorus, which isn’t even fully realized until its second time through. The band’s knack for crafting a captivating song that requires full patience from the listener is part of what makes them so alluring. Christian’s powerful vocal performance is the icing on top of the cake.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Ranking the Albums of Anberlin

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The recent news of Anberlin’s upcoming disbandment, following a final album release and subsequent tour, came as a shock to many. The Florida alt-rock band has not only been a staple of the scene for over a decade, but has had considerable crossover success. Even though their parting is unexpected and seems to come too soon, it’s an admirable feat for a band of such caliber to hang it up on their own terms.

Though the band is known for their passionate live performances, their eclectic nature and their earnest desire to connect with their fans, perhaps the most impressive thing about Anberlin is their stunning discography. Though there’s debate to be had over their best work, it’s hard to argue any Anberlin album as being dismissible.

PODCAST: The Best of Anberlin

At their best, the music of Anberlin was seminal and inspiring. Even in the weakest points of their catalogue, the band was still more prolific and imaginative that most bands in the scene. It seems appropriate as the band nears its end to reflect upon each release.

There’s plenty of room for debate about this list as there is no definitive answer for ranking the band’s albums. Nonetheless, the purpose of this piece is to give each release it’s due and try to determine the best of an incredible and impressive discography.

6. New Surrender

new_surrenderNew Surrender is often considered the weakest Anberlin record, but the reasons certainly have little to do with the quality of the songs themselves. The production (handled by Neal Avron) is stellar and the songs soar with big choruses and welling anthems. The biggest problem with New Surrender is a seeming lack of direction.

“The Resistence” kicks things off as one of the loudest and most aggressive tracks in the band’s catalogue, but immediately transitions into the poppy and gentle “Breaking”. The jarring persists throughout the affair, as the band struggles to find a groove or focus.

There’s no shortage of standout stand-alone songs on the album (“Feel Good Drag”, “Breathe), but it lacks a cohesiveness that appears through Anberlin’s discography. A rush into the studio after signing with Universal Republic certainly played a role, as did a myriad of label voices offering their opinion. Even so, the album was successful and the re-recorded “Feel Good Drag” vaulted Anberlin into the mainstream rock spotlight.

5. Blueprints for the Black Market 

blueprints_coverAnberlin’s debut is a furious one and showcases a young band on the brink of a breakout. Just try listening to opening number “Readyfuels” without getting a little bit amped up. Joseph Mulligan’s guitar work throughout the album is simply breathtaking and drives the songs forward.

There’s a certain “emo” feel to many of these songs, accompanied by Stephen Christian’s moody vocals and ambiguous lyrics. Has anyone actually figured out what “Cold War Transmissions” is about? Regardless, it adds to the album’s charm and keeps you coming back to find new clues and missed moments.

It’s clear when listening to Blueprints for the Black Market that the band was about to come into their own. Tracks like “Glass to the Arson” and “Naïve Orleans” are masterful in their own right and draw attention to the band’s songwriting abilities. Even today, the record holds its own quite well.

4. Dark is the Way, Light is a Place

Dark_Is_the_WayThe band recently described Dark is the Way as their “punk” record. While certainly not punk in sound, the album was a complete departure from their major label debut, New Surrender, and marked a noticeable shift from the band’s previous work. Dark is an alt rock record paying homage to the best parts of indie pop and 80s synth sounds.

Instead of being marked by standout radio singles, the album builds at a steady pace with dashes of excitement thrown in at opportune moments. The brooding chorus of “Closer” leaves you on the edge of your seat, while the haunting opening to “Art of War” sends a chill down your spine. The purpose of these songs is to create an atmosphere – and they do so quite well.

Dark is the Way, Light is a Place is self-indulgent in all of the right ways. It displays a side of the band that had never been shown and displays the band that is capable of writing far more than just rock songs. At times, you can almost forget that you’re listening to an Anberlin record, which is a testament to the band’s abilities as musicians.

3. Never Take Friendship Personal 

never_take_friendship_personalAnberlin’s second album hits hard, taking all of great moments of their debut and turning them to 11. Never Take Friendship Personal is, in concept, a record about relationships in all of their messy and confusing forms. It succeeds not only as a story of pain and redemption, but as the work of a band that’s hitting their stride.

Friendship features some of the best songs Anberlin has ever written – “Paperthin Hymn” is a high watermark, building upon every verse before crashing down during its triumphant chorus. “A Day Late” and “The Runaways” are perfect pop rock songs with just the right amount of bite. “Dance, Dance Christa Päffgen” is the first of many deep, brooding closing tracks and an absolute masterpiece.

If there was any doubt of Anberlin’s ability to craft emotional, purposeful cuts that maintained an accessibility and bounce, those doubts were squelched with the release of Never Take Friendship Personal. It’s hard to criticize anything about the album – from start to finish it’s an incredible picture of what Anberlin is all about.

2. Vital 

vitalVital may very well be the best representation of Anberlin in 2014. Obviously, it’s the band’s most recent release, but it’s an album that features a collection of all of the things that made the band special throughout the years. Stephen’s songwriting is just as evocative as ever and the backdrop is built of an array of moving parts that included synthesizers, keys and some of the band’s best guitar licks to date from Mulligan and Christian McAlhaney.

Whether it’s fiery, faced-paced tracks like “Self-Starter” and “Someone Anyone” or the slower, ominous feel of “Type 3” and “God, Drugs & Sex”, Vital has it all and manages to blend it effortlessly. Every song seems to fall right where it belongs, creating one of the most pleasant and exciting listens from front to back of any Anberlin album.

Everyone gets their chance to shine on Vital – Deon Rexroat’s bassline on “Desires” is fantastic while Nathan Young, always the baby of the group, has grown significantly and is able to push the songs full throttle where necessary and pull back at just the right moment. Vital is not only one of Anberlin’s best releases, but one of the best rock releases this decade.

1. Cities

citiesIt’s hard to argue Cities’ placement at the top of this list. The band’s third album is a triumph in every way and is an album that will be remembered and celebrated well after Anberlin’s upcoming disbandment. It’s no surprise that everyone seems to have a story to tell about Cities – the album is the story about all of us; a picture of community in all of its joys and pains.

The songs on Cities are often painful, longing for something greater from an array of perspectives. Yet amidst that pain, there’s a glimmer of hope – “A Whisper & A Clamor” pleads for a joyful clapping of hands while “The Unwinding Cable Car” offers its encouragement while it digs at our collective pain. The majestic closer, (*Fin)” is a whirlwind of a song, finding Christian calling out for hope.

Even darker moments like “Hello Alone” and “Alexithymia” hold their place well, weaving together the narrative. Each song has a purpose and excels individually while playing its part in the whole. Not only is it Anberlin’s best album, it’s one of the most complete and purposeful albums to come out of the scene.

Cities is an album that finds the storyteller taking a look within. In doing so, the band manages to tell the story of each one of us. To do it with such creative gusto and wonderful musicianship is simply icing on the cake.

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The bad news is that Anberlin will be calling it quits in 2014. The good news is that they’re not done yet. Who knows – their seventh and final release may surpass all of its predecessors. Given the band’s track record, it’s sure to be a fantastic album and a proper farewell to an incredible band.

What are your thoughts on our list? Share your own rankings in the replies!

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.