For Fans Of
‘Alien’s front cover is a fitting visual representation of Northlane’s sound on LP #5. It’s the djenty, prog-metalcore Northlane that you once knew (what’s seen underneath), but now it’s all been over-laid with a new coat of paint; a new layer of industrial electronics and synths (the black, metallic tar pooling over it). It’s a great metaphor of the new swallowing the old, of something much darker taking hold. The end result isn’t just the Australian band’s darkest and heaviest record to date, but their most varied and accomplished record yet. Both refreshing and familiar, ‘Alien‘ is a terrific balancing act. I honestly can’t think of another band in their scene that’s pulled off such a change this well.
For you see, Northlane’s fifth record sounds like if The Prodigy suddenly decided to make a prog-metal album; kinda like a darker-sounding, Aussie Enter Shikari but if they tuned their guitars a hell of a lot lower. The self-produced ‘Alien‘ exists in a world where huge EDM drops and metalcore breakdowns are synonymous; a universe where filthy metal riffs and grimy synths are best friends, not enemies. Once opener ‘Details Matter‘ kicks your teeth in with its tectonic 6/8 breakdowns and hurls you through the ringer with a gnarly-as-fuck opening synth, you’ll understand. I could make plenty other comparisons, but ultimately, this just sounds like Northlane; like it’s own individual thing.
Most impressively, Northlane simultaneously withheld their heavier, much-lauded prog-metalcore roots that have defined them hitherto, yet they’ve also branched out into a new breadth of sounds: glitchy electronics, electronic percussion, samples, pitch-shifting, and loads of synths, courtesy of Jon Deiley. This is their industrial-metal water-shed moment, with so much to be revealed on repeat listens. Better yet, all of it gels together to make a bold new direction in the shape of ‘Alien‘, showing everyone where they’ve been before but exposing their wider musical influences too. It’s a brilliant example of how a modern metal act can remain super-charged and heavy, not alienating (not sorry for that pun) huge droves of fans, AND still have room to sound refreshing and compelling. Those pre-release singles, ‘Bloodline‘, the iconoclastic ‘Vultures‘, and ‘Talking Heads‘? They’re the most “normal” songs of the lot next to ‘Paradigm.’ This is a record for cyber-goths, guitar nerds, open-minded metalcore kids, computer hackers, and anyone looking for something real.
While there’s nothing I’d change about ‘Alien‘, I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s a pretty weird record for Northlane. Yet that’s what’s so great about it! At it’s core, that’s precisely what ‘Alien‘ centres around: being a weirdo, an outcast, but wearing that like a badge of pride. It’s about not just feeling different, but being different. As the lyrics to ‘Talking Heads‘ put it, it’s about not feeling like you fit into your own skin; like you’re from a different planet to everyone else. All of this imparts one of the strongest aspects of the record alongside the killer new musical shift, and that’s the personalised lyrical content from Marcus Bridge. For the only thing heavier than the tunings on ‘Alien‘ are the hard-hitting words that their frontman so openly shares about his life. In that sense, I’m so glad that this record is grounded in reality, and despite its name, isn’t actually about some lame-ass sci-fi narrative. Such concepts in heavy music nowadays are immensely played out, being hard to fully connect with or even understand. (Looking at you, Aversions Crown and Oceano.)
Previously, guitarist Josh Smith wrote the lyrics for ‘Node‘ and ‘Mesmer‘, but now Marcus has taken the lyrical reigns to share his darkest moments. Growing up in a drug-fuelled, abusive household is a deep hell that no child should experience. But Marcus endured it, yet he made it out to the other side. Which is the message behind ‘Alien‘: you may have to overcome near unconquerable hurdles in life, but you can make it out. You can have a better life, one that your past won’t define. There’s such an angry yet defiant tone found in the sentiments Marcus shares, all ones of survival. Which may seem obscured by the surrounding instrumentals, but it’s there, all waiting to be uncovered. For better or for worse, these unfortunate experiences happened, they have defined him, and now he’s here to share it all with listeners and begin to heal and learn from this therapy.
On ‘Eclipse‘, Marcus aggressively growls “I will never let myself be like you“, talking about how his adult life will “eclipse” his ugly childhood days of fear, uncertainty and abuse. This is a record about believing in yourself, as ‘Details Matters‘ sees the vocalist detailing the cruelty of his parents, declaring “you can’t make me disappear“; that he won’t be consumed by his father’s words or the trauma of his past; that after all the hurt, he’s still here, still alive. The grey-areas of loss felt in ‘4D‘ deal with complicated thoughts surrounding his father’s passing, and the guilt Marcus feels in having out-lived his old man. Then there’s ‘Jinn‘, about being the underdog, seemingly borrowing Islamic beliefs of angels – beings called Jinn – and how they are neither good nor evil to begin with. Much like how a child is never born good or bad; it’s their environment and formative life experiences that cultivate either side. It’s a statement from Marcus that you can overcome the deck stacked against you, even when dealt a bad hand of loss and suffering.
‘Freefall‘ talks of being trapped in an isolating freefall, where numbness thrives, wondering if there is anyone else like you out there, trying to find refuge in sleep and dreams. Looking for anyone else who has also heard and seen things that no child should have to witness, like their own father being held at gun-point. (““Please don’t kill me in the face of my son and daughter”, I still hear them screaming, but I can’t feel at all” is one of the heaviest set of lyrics on the entire record.) ‘Bloodline‘ is a pointed piece about the frontman’s family, the abuse and neglect felt at their hands, his father’s drug addiction (“I thought you were dreaming/Eyes rolled to the stars” as a metaphor for getting high), how such vices took priority over Marcus and his sister, and finally escaping them. It’s a heated song about how their parents form of love was not the actual love nor the proper care that children require. The monstrous-sounding ‘Talking Heads‘ focuses on rejecting medication and searching for escapism behind a slowly falling veil to save face, about being deafened by inner voices and wrestling with the demons in your head. Then there’s ‘Sleepless‘, written about his sister and how their mother failed to protect her from substance abuse. It’s an honest love-letter to his sister, about her growth, her relapses, and own struggles with drugs and abuse. (She’s thankfully clean now, something that ‘Paradigm‘ also deals with.)
‘Alien‘ is easily the most “produced” Northlane album to date, but that’s no bad thing: they haven’t held back, and I applaud them in throwing caution to the wind. There’s very few repeated ideas, plenty of surprises, and there’s zero superfluous instrumental songs cluttering the record too. ‘Alien‘ isn’t predictable: it keeps you guessing, and that makes the track flow impeccable. Also aided by the little samples and skits that bridge a track’s outro to the next songs’ intro. It’s also all a testament to Adam “Nolly” Getgood’s incredible mixing abilities. In fact, I don’t think it’s an understatement to label this as Nolly’s greatest mix yet. He’s done a phenomenal job of highlighting every single element of Northlane in the best light: Nic Pettersen’s drums sound weighty and real, the stupidly low guitars blend with the thicker electro elements seamlessly, and Marcus is vocally clear and defined throughout. It’s a real feat that there’s a record this heavy that comes together this well in crystal clear clarity.
And there’s just so much to love about these songs too! The glitchy guitar rakes during ‘Bloodline‘ are adrenaline-fuelled. The hectic, stop-start breakdown near the end of ‘Jinn‘, filled with savage pinch harmonics syncopated with pounding kick drums and cymbal hits, is just mental. That’s also a wicked section that hits before a massive passage where immense down-tuned guitars morph over their partnered synths, all before a brief metal-disco boogie part arrives. The bleeping sounds, drum and bass beats rave synth risers and superb signing performances on ‘4D‘ – notice the high-note Marcus reaches while singing full-pelt during that final “someone just like me” chorus – are all excellent. And the driving pace of ‘Eclipse‘ is future-rave and sci-fi metal colliding like exploding neutrons; one of the densest moments of ‘Alien‘ that leaves nothing in it’s seismic wake.
Yet the next song, the synthwave-like ‘Rift‘ is a polar opposite experience. Marcus’s soothing cleans utter “the world’s going to end…” over electro drum loops, big synth washes, delayed guitars , and drifting atmospherics that float over a foreboding sonic underworld. It’s a pallet cleanser between sides A and B, but one that echoes the shifting filters that dress up the ebb and flow of following track, ‘Paradigm.’ Speaking of, there Northlane take on a more radio-metal vibe in its structure and chord progressions with ‘Paradigm,’ but that helps to ensure it has its own feel from the rest. And while ‘Paradigm‘ is the only song here that I’m personally not too crazy about, I can still see that’s it’s a good cut. So at it’s absolute worst, ‘Alien‘ is still solid? Damn.
Most bands of Northlane’s ilk approach breakdowns by wanting said parts to crush you into the ground. Which is why the giant “guilt of surviving” breakdown on ‘4D‘ is SO good: it doesn’t crush you from above, it instead pulls the carpet right out from under your feet. With a grumbling, gut-churning synth breaking through the surface of the mix, it overpowers everything else, like the equivalent of prog-metal quicksand lapping at your feet, pulling you down into a ludicrously heavy undercurrent. The busy drumming and synths on ‘Freefall‘ give that particular songs melodic edge even more backbone, as Marcus reaches high vocally and belts out one of the strongest choruses he’s ever delivered. Just try to keep your jaw off the floor when he nails that eruptive “I can’t feel at all” vocal line. It’s the best chorus off ‘Alien‘ next to ‘4D‘ and ‘Talking Heads‘, and one of my favourite Northlane choruses, right up there with the refrain from ‘Render‘. And boy, don’t even get me started on those dope guitar tonal bends in that song either!
Elsewhere, ‘Sleepless‘ is Marcus simply singing softly over light keys as Aphex Twin-esque drum beats filter away in the background. A surprising, minimal set-up before the whole band later crashes in halfway through into one of the most climactic, uplifting sections of music Northlane have ever pieced together. And it’s fucking great! Similar to ‘Alien‘ as a whole, there’s nothing else like ‘Sleepless‘ in Northlane’s discography, and it’s a strong album send-off. A final offering that reveals the deeper experimental qualities Northlane have always possessed, but are now confident enough to fully share them with the world.
Getting into the specific members, Josh and Jon have a ridiculous riff output here, ranging from bouncy alt-metal riffs, crazy octave lines, to precise, proggy rhythms when shit gets heavier and intense. The tunings are so low, sitting around Drop F before then being pitched down further to sit near Double Drop C, yet they’re all so smooth in quality and tone that the execution is on-point; helping to push each song forward. Nic’s drumming is the most well-balanced it’s been in the band’s current era, with his playing being as tight and as imaginative as ever. His sense of pulse, snare work, and odd-time note placement is superb, but he also knows when to just stick to a solid, straight metal groove to boost the tracks. He’s still one of Australia’s finest drummers, sitting right alongside Dane Pulvirenti (Osaka Punch), Troy Wright, Benjamin Shannon (Milton Man Gogh), and Shane Russell (Twelve Foot Ninja).
New bassist Brendon Padjasek (ex-Structures) adds so much to the band. From his solid Dingwall bass action, to his helpful backing screams, he’s become a real asset for Northlane. His deliriously heavy bass tone just sways your gut with how much low-end there is to eat up, and his playing is spot on with the rest of the instrumentals and vocals. (Former bassist Alex Milovic actually tracked bass for ‘Vultures‘ before being let go.) You can tell that when Marcus has an occasional over-lapping vocal, Brendon will pick up that second vocal part when playing live.
Then there’s the man of the hour, Marcus. First off, this is without a doubt the best he’s ever sounded. Both his singing and screaming have come so far. He’s pretty much screaming for the entirety of the record too, but his cleans and pitched-vocals are powerful as well. When he’s belting out super high notes or just holding really meaty screams, there’s nothing else to say other than he may just be one of the best vocalists in Australian heavy music currently. More than that, the distortion effects and down-pitched vocals on ‘Eclipse‘, to the raspy Jonathan Davis/Marilyn Manson out-of-tune vocals during the verses of ‘Talking Heads‘ and ‘4D‘ better reveal the hefty nu-metal influence within ‘Alien‘. However, it’s an influence that never once feels cheap or forced like other releases; it’s genuine and inspired more than anything else, and only serves to improve Northlane’s sound as a whole.
There’s honestly nothing I’d alter about this record, big or small. ‘Alien’ is a near-perfect album. Northlane could not make ‘Alien’ if they hadn’t made ‘Discoveries’ and ‘Singularity beforehand; they couldn’t do this if they hadn’t done ‘Node‘ and ‘Mesmer‘ afterwards. Yet this is the change they needed. This is an album finely crafted after years doing what they do; years of touring, writing, listening, and experiencing. It’s a culmination of so much, and in a way, this is their make-or-break moment, but they sure haven’t broken in terms of song-writing and performances. If anything, this is their greatest release. I love ‘Discoveries’ and ‘Singularity’ as much as the next person: they’re both great records, important releases for Northlane and the larger scene they exist within. (We’ve all heard countless bands rip-off those older songs over the years.) But that was then, this is now, and ‘Alien’ isn’t just a whole new level, it’s an entirely different ball-game. No matter the era of Northlane you prefer, please go into this LP with an open mind.
As there is just so much to love with this well-produced beast. It’s all so musically cerebral and lyrically visceral; like someone having their brain synapses re-wired with future bass and sci-fi metal; feeling like you’ve eavesdropped on a therapy session you should never have heard. I am seriously blown away when it comes to ‘Alien’. Because seven months ago, if you had told me that my 2019 AOTY was going to be the new Northlane album, I’d have laughed in your dumb face: “yeah, righto champ.” But now here we are, with a sensational new Northlane release and my personal favourite album of the year; a record I’ve been infatuated with and haven’t stopped thinking about since first hearing it back in May. Can’t stop listening, wont’ stop listening. There’s nothing else like it right now. There’s only one ‘Alien’, only one Northlane. This one is out of this fucking world!
- Details Matter
- Talking Heads
‘Alien’ is out August 2nd.