Anberlin burst onto the scene in 2003. I saw it, and it was messy.
No, I didn’t see it — I think I read about it first — or heard them on a sampler. And, come to think of it, I didn’t have much of a concept of a scene then, only Tooth and Nail Records and whatever they chose to release to me in my niche corner of the Youth Group Underground. The music was mostly just pop music that varied in tempo and production. Some songs outright praised God. Some were more just mumblings about teenage hardships. Those were my favorite.
And Anberlin didn’t really “burst” on to a scene; they released a debut album on a record label with pretty good distribution. It got them instant listeners and prime spots at festivals like Cornerstone and Purple Door. “Boys speak in rhythm and girls in code” from “Foreign Language” was the first marginally catchy — nay, insanely catchy — hook on the first Anberlin disc, following the opening proto-metal track “Ready Fuels.” Frontman Stephen Christian peppered this revelation with inane doot-doo-doo-dos that seemed to contradict his froggy voice with overt Everly Brothers’ popness.
It stuck all the same; the soaring guitar lead pushed the album upward into pop-punk heaven in under three minutes. Now, Anberlin had my attention.
Their artwork was dark and industrial, buildings and sidewalks, brick and architecture in black and white with little to glean than a generic coolness. They seemed the kind of men who wore leather jackets and skinny jeans, kept their wallets on chains and drank High Life with little distinction. Their first song offered a bit of safe rock — a little rollick, a little thunder.
“Boys speak in rhythm and girls just lie.”
Now we had a contradiction, mostly because I pictured the lead singer as a 30-year old man singing about how I, as a 17-year old, couldn’t understand women. His voice gave off a croaked maturity so the youthful guitar line and “Girls! I just don’t understand them!” mentality struck me as rote.
Anberlin was shaving off their radio-rock edges, the kind that would ensnare a band like Skillet and essentially turn them into a paint-by-numbers Staind act. They would breathe life with melodic guile and punk-more-cute-than-rock sound, but with a brazen confidence that either defied their own awareness or danced in spite of it. Their flirtatious, out-of-the-gate summer mix tape hit was so lacking in danger, in hindsight, it seemed daring after the first down-tuned bro-rock stab. I felt the urge to call and warn them that the jocks were liable to show up at their door and give them a beat down.
My friend quickly dismissed them as forced and Muppet-voiced, with an obvious and innocuous stab at a radio single on an otherwise straightaway heavy man-rock-emo album. He claimed that “Foreign Language” was the obvious outlier as the label-commissioned single and any objections (it was my favorite song) were met with doot-doo-doo-do. He failed to factor in, however, the far more sugary, synth-line intro-ed “Autobahn,” a love song about driving the European highway. It begged to be in a movie where “time drips like Dali.” “Autobahn” was far less prog — or much rock at all — and any bite was replaced by its saccharine confessional too washed in clichés to seem original. Instead of the label forcing this single, perhaps it was Christian’s wife.
Blueprints for the Black Market seemed to categorize a time when the Tooth and Nail label was expanding at the expense of focus but with to broader appeal. It seems a far cry from the days of scrappy punk like Ghoti Hook and Ninety Pound Wuss. This was some serious rock for serious people who aren’t too sure what they’re even serious about. Blueprints for the Black Market is actually a more telling title then you’d think — it describes the forethought and the structure of something criminal or as-yet untamed, like rail roads through the Wild West. It has all the edge of quarter-life crisis-wearing biker leather because you’ve seen the “Wild One” or the allure of playing a Bond villain in “Golden Eye” on N64. There’s a misunderstood darkness or edge that seems to borrow personality from everywhere else.
Strictly on a sonic level, the album is punchy and full, well-produced and with a capable polish, thanks to Aaron Sprinkle. It sounds like a veteran band, but despite showcasing excellent musicianship, Blueprints does grow tepid by track 10, “Cadence.” The mid-tempo Foo Fighters by-way-of Three Doors Down (or any number of post-Pearl Jam modern rock bands) dark riffing does blend well together, despite some nice melodies and the aforementioned plays at more infectious, pop-oriented numbers.
It’s about this time that a more raw approach could’ve added a level of excitement or unpredictability to the too-cleaned-up rock sound.
The peak of the album is the final track, “Naïve Orleans.” It fuses the varied elements of Anberlin’s sound — the progressive rock with hooky, electro-tinged pop — in to a cohesive and stadium-mounting whole. Starting with a sparse drum sample, the song ramps into the best chorus on the album, detailing severance, acceptance and moving on. If the band had any trouble reconciling melodic sentiment with rock and roll flexing, they left it back with their hearts in New Orleans.
Anberlin called it quits at the start of this year, announcing a final tour and album on their original label, Tooth and Nail. In the years since their debut, they’ve expanded from the Christian Market Bubble into a viable alternative rock band. The signs were there all along — modern rock radio embraced the heavy guitars and meticulous, generic production. Leafing through their singles on YouTube, a blanket description could sum up each song: riffy hard rock, radio ready with yell-sung chorus approaching falsetto. Besides a U2 impression on Dark is the Way, my favorite moments on Blueprints were when the band’s their deviation in to teenage emo-punk absurdity, the seriousness, in leather jackets, seems to have overtaken their split personality and left me with little to root for. Maybe boys speaking in rhythm and girls in code — that duality — struck the right balance. I don’t know. Christian did exclaim he needed medication for the miscommunication.