For Fans Of
A couple of weeks ago I discovered a band from the States called Westhand and their song, ‘Illumine’. If you have never heard of this small-time Detroit band before – which is more than likely, as they aren’t well-known by any means – then just know that they’re a “progressive” metalcore band that’s been labelled as a Northlane clone due to the success of, well, Northlane. (They also don’t do themselves any favours with ‘Illumine‘ being one of the most egregious ‘Quantum Flux‘ rip-offs I’ve ever fucking heard.)
Yet for all of the copycats out there that are still jacking the ‘Discoveries’ and ‘Singularity’ sound, the irony here is that Northlane doesn’t really sound like that archetypal band anymore.
I mean, sure, their fourth album ‘Mesmer‘ is ultimately still Northlane at heart. Whether it’s Nic Pettersen’s tight, groovy drum patterns; bassist Alex Milovic’s crisp, churning bass playing; Josh Smith’s and (unintentional) Sabian Lynch lookalike Jon Deiley’s approach to low-tuned, bouncy guitar riffs and their atmospheric leads that soar above and in the background; the exceptional polar opposite vocals of Marcus Bridge; their stomping breakdowns and repetitive song structures – this is still Northlane and the proggy, metalcore elements they love to employ.
But even so, their first two records are a different musical beast than what they’ve now grown into; a group that currently sits in the ballpark of fellow Aussies like Karnivool, Dead Letter Circus, and Voyager, instead of Born Of Osiris, Architects and Misery Signals as they once previously did. As such, just like ‘Node’ before it, ‘Mesmer’, is another small step away from their roots. The key difference here, however, is that this new effort is a stronger and at times far heavier step up from Northlane’s questionable third record.
With a hype-building marketing campaign channelling the album’s pre-release, and much like Mindsnare’s recent surprise album or In Hearts Wake’s ‘Skydancer’ (except this album isn’t mediocre as fuck) Friday, March 24th, suddenly saw ‘Mesmer’ unleashed into digital and physical shelves around the world. As someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of ‘Node‘ and who regards ‘Discoveries‘ as their best work, I gotta say that ‘Mesmer‘ is a solid record. No fuckin’ doubt about it!
But before we get stuck into the songs, let’s get a few things out of the way.
Firstly, this album’s production and mix.
Thankfully, everything is clearer, cleaner and stronger overall here than what ‘Node’ gave us; whose mix and recording was a big contentious point for yours truly and the die-hard Northlane sweaters and Will Putney fans out there. (I’m sure many will still criticise ‘Mesmer‘ for not being a plethora of samples ala the first two Northlane albums.) This time around, the Sydney band worked with renowned producer and engineer, David Bendeth, and his influence here really shows, mainly with Bridge and his terrific vocal production, making the kind-hearted frontman sound the best he ever has. While Northlane isn’t a “hit” band like most of Bendeth’s other clients (All Time Low, Tonight Alive, Paramore, etc.), I feel Bendeth was the right person to helm the production, engineering, mixing and mastering duties for ‘Mesmer‘.
Secondly, regarding the lyrics, guitarist Josh Smith is still acting as band’s lyricist since old mate Adrian Fitipaldes left in 2014. Like all of their prior records, listeners will be treading through a metaphysical, DMT-fueled lyrical trip for the most part. So expect the usual knowledge is power, societal counter-culture, “rise up” and “we are far from free” themes here.
However, there are a handful of emotionally tinged exceptions to be extracted from this record, providing solid thematic variety. Namely, the tale of relationship loss on ‘Heartmachine‘ (“I’m breathing just to pass the time/I forgot to eat tonight/just running down the clock today/with hope the ache will go away“); the grieving process and lament of family members passing away on ‘Fade‘ (“And the price that I have paid/When I watched you pass away/Is the everlasting pain/ And a memory that fades away“) and on the moving, euthanasia-endorsing track ‘Veridian‘ (“Let me leave this world with dignity/Just let me leave this world“); and how’ Zero-One‘ implores that we should throw caution to the wind and follow what we love in life (“reclaim your life/Your cycle around the sun is eclipsing“.)
Yet the most notable lyrical standout is the album’s sonically and emotionally brutal finale, ‘Paragon‘, written in honour of late Architects guitarist, Tom Searle. What gives this away is the mid-song line of “He once said to us, my friend hope is a prison/But the hope his chords sung only spread love/In a hollow crowned kingdom“, being the most prominent of the whole song, if not the whole record. Also, there’s the fact that Searle and Architects have been a key influence on Deiley’s own guitar playing, and Northlane’s sound in general. It really is a touching ode to a deceased peer and friend, and one that’s delivered in one of the strongest, most effective songs Northlane have ever written to date. [Metal Hammer have a great track-by-track rundown with Smith about the album, and you can read that here.]
There’s also no obligatory instrumental/interlude fillers to be found here like the pointlessness of ‘Nameless’. No, this album is all about full, proper compositions! And as for those actual songs, if you enjoyed ‘Node’ but simply wished it was better, then this record has been tailored made for you, dear reader.
However, while Northlane’s hit-to-miss ratio is really improving and while they’re really finding their feet after that preceding transitional and lacklustre record, the track sequencing of ‘Mesmer‘ is sadly quite inconsistent.
The first five songs – which includes recent single ‘Citizen’ kicking the record off – simply feel like ‘Node’ B-sides. Which is fine, that was a decent album at best; one I’d never label it as ‘amazing’ nor ‘great’, mind you. But see, ‘Citizen’, ‘Colourwave’, ‘Savage’, ‘Solar‘ and ‘Heartmachine‘ are just business as usual, and simply what many are accustomed to in their post-‘Singularity’ era. Just with more singing present, really. While these five track are decent outings, they’re nothing that memorable admittedly, especially when you consider the damn fine tracks that follow them. And it’s these remaining songs that I get very, very excited about.
It’s on the back half of ‘Mesmer‘ where Northlane pulls out all of the stops and move from banger to pure banger and it’s ‘Intuition’ that helps kick things off into overdrive; a song that proves you don’t need a conventional “hook” to get stuck in people’s heads. Now, these remaining half-dozen songs aren’t drastic left turns, nor are they overly progressive from the band’s normal sonic template. Instead, something just… clicks right into place here in terms of songwriting, execution and the truly memorable moments the quintet delivers right up until the album’s final notes ring out.
‘Zero-One’ starts with a pretty groovy intro from Pettersen that then expands into a swaying ocean of heavy and melodic guitar layers. It also shows off one of Bridge’s filthiest, dirtiest vocal deliveries at the two-minute point, and features one of the best breakdown/heavy sections Northlane have written since the final moments of ‘Transcending Dimensions’ and the now iconic intro of ‘Dispossession’. ‘Fade’ is akin to earlier tunes like ‘Solar‘ except that it’s running on multiple steroids. ‘Fade‘ also achieves greater heights than that aforementioned track by sticking to an alternative soundscape, for the most part, making the shift to an earth-shattering breakdown halfway through that much more impactful. Then there’s the Bill Hicks-inspired ‘Render’, my personal favourite song of the lot, and whose ebb and flow is nearly unmatched by its fellow ten counterparts. What really grabs your attention here is from the 1:18 mark right through to 2:03, it’s just straight-up moshville. And. It’s. Fucking. Awesome! The soaring vocal harmony that follows is a fine example of the band’s solid songwriting capabilities and combined with those hard-hitting, angular riffs and driving drum grooves, you’ve got an instant standout with one of Northlane’s greatest songs to date.
Which is how I’d also describe the album’s final pair.
First of this final two is the heartfelt and penultimate ripper, ‘Veridian’, which follows nicely on from ‘Render’, and is one of the most personalised focal points of the entire record. While it sits further on the melodic, atmospheric scale – save for its crunchy bass tones and that middle eight, adrenaline pumping breakdown – it continues the album’s solid track record. (Yes, that pun was intended.) There’s a real sense of urgency to this song, caused by the head-bobbing, nu-metal-like riffs and the song’s overall pacing and flow. Which contrasts beautifully with the haunting clean singing of “Let me leave this world with dignity” and the pleading screams of “turn off these machines”, making the affecting pro-euthanasia standpoint behind ‘Veridian‘ really hit home. Then arrives the band’s final send-off for album number four, ‘Paragon‘.
The swelling, reverse effects and heartbeat-like percussion that starts ‘Paragon’ ushers in a truly crushing dirge of Meshuggah-worship complete with jagged riffs and immense, odd-time drumming. It’s the heaviest track on ‘Mesmer‘ by fucking light years! But best of all, it doesn’t once feel phoned-in or lazy at all; but instead powerful and very fitting. For it’s a sonically heavy track reinforcing an emotionally heavy tale, for as mentioned before, the emotional value here comes from Northlane’s honouring of Tom Searle and by referencing Architects lyrics throughout. It’s a moving sentiment for a long time Architects fan such as myself, and I just know it will resonate with many others too. It’s a vastly respectful track for the now deceased yet widely loved guitarist; one that comes from a place of deep remorse and real love.
It also just so happens to conclude ‘Mesmer‘ in a near-perfect fashion, too.
To reiterate a prior point, ‘Mesmer’ is a step in the right direction for Northlane and it pushes them out of the musical growing pains and sonic inconsistency of ‘Node’, even if this record is quite repetitive at times. If you stepped off of the Northlane express when ‘Node’ dropped, then you won’t want to step back aboard now with ‘Mesmer’. However, if Northlane’s contentious third album is what brought you into their folds, then this should absolutely be the very next thing you hear. That’s if you haven’t heard it already, for some bloody reason.
Yet with the album’s sequencing inconsistency, it makes me think that if the first five tracks weren’t present, we’d have one of the best Australian heavy releases of 2017. (Hell, even if you switched the tracklisting around, it would start off superbly yet end weakly, which ain’t much better.) So, with the record’s final six killer tunes being held back by the merely decent baggage of its first half, ‘Mesmer’ isn’t quite as mesmerising as initially hoped for.
‘Mesmer’ is out now via UNFD.
Again, let’s all say it together now: “Discoveries > Singularity > Mesmer > Node.” Also, I’m actually crushed that I didn’t come up with the term “Djent Letter Circus” for this album.