It’s hard to know what to say about Northlane anymore. For all the superlatives that get thrown their way, they feel like something of a perfunctory presence in both tech-metal and metalcore, and considering how they clearly try so hard with everything they do, it’s led to some fairly severe disappointments. And obviously it’s not like that’s what Northlane were intending, either; the move to a more spacious, experimental sound on 2015’s Node did have its moments indicative of a band expanding their horizons, but it’s an album that’s all but faded at this point, and while 2017’s Mesmer went even further down that route, both sonically and in its surprise release, that album’s ephemerality shone out even brighter than its predecessor’s right from the beginning. It’s been enough to forget that Northlane even exist, honestly, even if it has only been two years, and it’s something that Alien’s lead tracks haven’t done much to rectify either. The change in sound is continuing, now with more elements of alt-rock and nu-metal thrown into a mix that’s losing a lot of connective tissue, but it’s not having an effect on its longevity, and that can be a rough sign going ahead if this turns out to be yet another album that leaves no impression whatsoever.
But that’s not what happens here, and while it says quite a bit that an almost entire overhaul of approach is what it takes to make a good Northlane album, the results speak for themselves, as Alien is indeed one of their stronger efforts to date. It’s actually a rather pleasant surprise, all things considered, especially for a band for whom the ‘bigger is better’ ethos did very little for them, and so centralising their efforts on more internal, personal themes has ultimately proven to be the biggest step forward. It’s still not fantastic by any means, but it’s a more considerable step in the right direction than anyone could’ve predicted that Northlane would make at this stage.
And really, it’s in the writing where the changes made have the most considerable weight, and how they focus on vocalist Marcus Bridge’s childhood living with parents who were both addicts and the tremendous toll it’s taken throughout his life. Even just conceptually, it’s more engaging than Northlane have really ever been with their content, and the surprisingly unflinching turns do establish just how deeply this realism runs. It immediately lends a lot of credence to what could be dismissed as more formulaic metalcore demon-purging on Talking Heads, but in tales of being held at gunpoint for drug money on Freefall and Bridge’s sister falling into a methamphetamine addiction with no attempts made to help her, the human quality that’s rarely ever been present in Northlane’s music is here in full force. It certainly only helps that Bridge remains the sort of excellent vocalist that’s always been this band’s trump card when it comes to their overall evaluation, and the passages of smoothness of a song like Rift do show that, but there’s something in how feral he comes across on a track like Eclipse that solidifies a deep-rooted connection to this material more than ever.
It’s just a shame the execution wasn’t a bit better, though to Northlane’s credit, they’re putting in the work to make Alien feel like a distinct entity within their catalogue. Their choices in electronic tones are perhaps noticeable, bookending the album in differing contortions of drum ‘n’ bass progressions on Details Matter and Sleepness, coupled with the quasi-nu-metal glances that are easy to discern with the clear Slipknot influence on 4D. And again, this is done well overall; from a musical standpoint, it does feel as though Northlane know what they’re doing with these individual sounds, and their typical big-budget production only makes this feel like even more of a colossal undertaking. It’s in the composition where they fall though, with Alien being an album of standout moments that struggles to make that coalesce into a whole. Sleepless is arguably the best track here for how it limits itself to one vision and allows that to build and grow into itself naturally, but there can be an over-emphasis on fragmentation elsewhere that simply lacks focus, or a return to more standard tech-metal on Jinn and Vultures that’s lost so much of its sheen at this point. These are definitely good pieces to construct an album from, and in isolation, Northlane can convey a level of musical prowess that’s consistently impressive and malleable, but it falls apart when it comes to putting everything together, and the album can feel wildly uneven because of that.
But even then, clear quality that hasn’t totally been honed is preferable to what Northlane have delivered on their last couple of albums. The steps forward that they’re making here couldn’t be more evident, and with music that feels more forceful and galvanised through its changes in tack has a lot more appeal to it. It’s why Alien feels like as much of a turning point for Northlane as it does, solidifying a breakaway from tech-metal blandness and into something that can actually put their musical skills to good use. They’ve still got a couple of hurdles to traverse before they become a great band, but this is arguably as close to that as they’ve ever been.
For fans of: Architects, While She Sleeps, Cane Hill
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Alien’ by Northlane is released on 2nd August on UNFD.