A steady stream of hype has followed Northlane‘s Alien album around… and it’s not even out yet. The upcoming fifth album for the band has left an impressive trail of singles in its wake, with eager listeners following these metaphorical crumbs hungrily toward the album release on Friday. The album’s listening party in Melbourne inspired another wave of enthusiastic responses. As a reviewer, going in free of expectation has been impossible, because everyone who has an opinion has made it loud and clear: Alien is amazing. I was eager to form my own impression by taking time with the 11 tracks.
Northlane’s previous album Mesmer was something that asked questions of life, and attempted to take a new lens to the experience of being human. In “Colourwave” we heard the pride and courage of “My life is what I make of my trials and my mistakes / My life is what I make, I am what I create”. Far more than a re-hash of expected Northlane-flavoured songs, Alien has extended Mesmer‘s concept and turned a sharp spotlight to the aforementioned trials and given richness to the idea of creating one’s life.
This spotlight upon specifics shines so brightly and unswervingly in Alien that the resulting vulnerability of this exposure can be hard to take. Where Mesmer was a crystalline cube thoughtfully refracting lightwaves of existence, Alien is hands digging in the soil, with dirt collecting under fingernails while hunting for understanding. The safety of Mesmer‘s metaphor has shattered and shit has got very real in Alien.
As the album’s opening track “Details Matter” offers a blunt force introduction, complete with whirring, grinding, and circular riffs. By the gripping hands of bass and anguished vocals, the listener is pulled down into the thick of it. With a driving pace that’s somehow liquid and scattered at the same time, it’s hard to get a firm hold of the beat. Lines like “How do you sleep so sound with so many demons in your head to wrestle” ripple outward, with waves of sound in support.
“Details Matter” finds its greatest strength at the chorus, and it’s confronting with how full and thick it is in sound. This savage album opener is an instant statement of the trials at hand. Detailing lyrically how there’s people who’d be happier if the protagonist were struggling adds further weight to this. Sparking a shivery sadness in me, the track is moving and chest-cracking in its defiant refusal to collapse and its sheer determination to rise and thrive in spite of others.
Down stepping guitar and tones and roaring felt fitting for compounding pressures or reasons to buckle. Ignoring this though, “Details Matter”‘s verses continue to climb over hurdles. With what seems like bassist Brendon Padjasek’s vocals pleasantly joining in with Marcus, the track is a deliciously written and roaring celebration of survival to date, and determination to continue to do so. I’m digging the electronic stutters and other glitches along the way in this hectic song.
For my ears, Alien seems to features many ‘boss battle’-esque song sections, and “Details Matter” is one of these. A grand downward run in an instrumental pocket full of noise and static sets this scene, and I’m all heart eyes emoji taking in the tones as the battle hits its peak. In the relative rubble afterward, determination and voice are still alive and well in the protagonist, and these qualities power his existence around him. The line “Wouldn’t you love a voiceless wreck / Tear my throat from my neck” kills me, based on how much seems to be challenging the mere act of (a singer!) speaking out, and how it’s happening anyway. Clearly having said too much about one song already, let me just add one more thing about “Details Matter”: Goddamn I love the bass.
In the context of the album, “Bloodline” continues the same energy of defiance and strength. All of the samples and pieces of the sound of this track may as well operate like a metaphor of piecing oneself back together, with the result being something beautiful a la kintsugi.
Distant cries exist alongside ominous tones on this second track. “Bloodline” builds, courses, and pulses through its oppressive verses, and arises triumphantly to plant a flag on a mountaintop in the choruses. It’s by no means an easy ride though, as punctuated by a savage post-chorus and roaring and static bombardment.
By way of meaning, “Bloodline” is an amazing song that’s tough to listen to. I’m moved every time I sit with it. Lighter vocals carry an innocence along with the lyrics telling stories of childhood, where crashes of realisation and pain come defined by percussive hits. These are experiences that have left scars.
The choice of words in “Bloodline” has my brain think of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. It says “Climb in the back with your head in the clouds and you’re gone” and shares twin subject matter of drug use. Where one song offers a quirky fantasia, the other delivers a mud-splattered and painful reality. The contrast between the highs and the lows, and the attempts of a scared child to connect to their drug-distanced parent is sobering (pun not intended). The cry of “You call this love” just wrecks me every time, and I can’t take it in without an empathy storm of what it must have been like, and, as a mother myself, how much of a void would have been left for the child in terms of familial bonds.
The gravity of all of this rains down by “Bloodline”‘s grandeur of sound. Where key points of upbringing were left untouched and unchecked, almost guaranteed to result in a mangled adulthood. And yet… “I made it out by myself” is how it went. Stated with fullness of the entire band with a blast of sound, it’s unshakeably and unwaveringly defiant and strong. Beyond this, with the many layers and sounds at play; the stuttering slipping sounds, the lighter melodies – there’s a lot to take in, keeping the song from going stale and remaining interesting even after being played on repeat. Trust me on that one.
Seeming cleaner despite its static and grinding riffs, “4D” comes with a rapid pace and ripples of sound in amongst the noise (think: random seagull calls that fade into the distance). A synthy melody persists through “4D”, and it feels like some of the defiance has dropped and there’s maybe a greater will to connect. Distorted vocals spit out facts and the gang vocal pre-chorus feels on a quest to have others feel understood and to not feel alone.
There’s something magical in “4D”, with pixelated vibrance seeming static and unpredictable yet also forming meaningful pictures. Throughout Alien I noticed a flexibility of pace and timing, and “4D” comes across as one of those; where the rigid container of expected structure and beats is toyed with. But maybe this is more that my mind easily falls into the different layers, beats, samples, the rain storm of sound, and Marcus’ searching melodic voice, and lets the song bend time in however it wishes to. “4D” is buzzing, thoughtful, and beautiful.
“I’m still trying, your will dying”
Familiar due to overplay, “Talking Heads”‘ arrival in this track order is a pleasant one. Thick riffs land after a pulsing intro and throaty vocals fall into a tale of mental wrestling, where thoughts are held hostage. I ADORE the reality shattering dissonance of “I don’t fit into my SKIN / Maybe I’m just like the rest of them” and the turbulence created instrumentally. It’s explosive and unsettling, a perfect fit for the discomfort of anxiety and the alienation from the self and also from everyone else you see around you.
“Talking Heads” is another case of being emotionally moved by Alien, in particular how a soaring voice comes across as an attempt to break free of an internal cage. The song is instrumentally stunning, feeling orchestral and full as well as stuttering and gritty in its industrial strength. Starting lightly, “Talking Heads” ends fiercely and in a way that’s dominating.
I’m not sure how many ways you can say it sounds huge, but “Freefall” seems to amp up that word into something else entirely from the get go. Mammoth riffs work well to foreshadow something dark ahead. The arrival of searching singing acts like a parting of thick curtains of sound, and I double check that I’m not listening to something by someone like Holding Absence.
Thematically, my first listen to this had me wondering whose embrace was missing “in this freefall”, and my immediate thought was one of a parent or a close companion. “Freefall”‘s pace quickens with the second verse and a bleak picture is painted of an armed intruder with zig-zagging of sound. What makes this hit harder is that based on the news articles and press releases I’ve read about Marcus’ experiences, none of this is fiction or exaggerated. It feels wrong to even be poking at it with an assessing mind, feeling that it’s more deserving of inspiring an assembly of support for anyone who’s been in Marcus’ position; forming a shoulder-to-shoulder barrier of protection for any child who endures an uncertain existence at the hand of addiction.
“Freefall” offers intriguing shifts into notes/chords that I wasn’t expecting. Bass tones support the unfolding of a blisteringly uncomfortable experience, the shards of which would undoubtedly stick in a person’s mind. Instability and isolation that is well-crafted by guitar makes this another song that extracts sadness from me. I can’t imagine waking to the circumstance of loaded gun to my head, let alone swallow what it’d be like for a child to witness that happening to their parent. Childhood is for play and discovery, not matters of life or death.
Sharpened guitar pierces the track, “like cold metal to the temple of my Father”, and a drop into something rhythmic and forward moving seems to mark a life-defining moment where empathy was forced to retreat, for means of one’s survival and sanity. Bass boosted thickness oozes with the fading end of “Freefall”, and it comes across like an alarm or a record stuck in a groove. Background sounds and clicks at the song’s close are an example of more details of interest that show up throughout Alien.
“Stranded by way comforts me
Life’s a nightmare blooming free”
When I first heard “Jinn”, I thought it was the most typical Northlane sounding song of the album so far, due to intricate guitar, Marcus’ roars, and a punishing pace. It was the chorus that changed my mind though. It instantly dissolved any idea of “I’ve heard this before”, as well as melted any defenses I had. Yes, add it to the ever-growing list of “Songs From Alien That Made Me Cry”.
“Jinn” is dark and bleak, taking in how impossible it has been for a seedling to sprout through any cracks in this oppressive concrete existence. Furious, demons formed of static and blazing riffs flail seemingly unproductively, and recognise the futility of trying in the nightmare of life.
But every time the radiance of the chorus arrives, I’m moved, like something angelic has arrived. Impossibly beautiful, I can’t help but shed a tear. With those sky high clear vocals, think older Muse if you like, think Holding Absence again, but think Northlane too, because you’re witnessing their reinvention in authenticity rather than witnessing them trying on any other band’s skin.
I didn’t know what “jinn” meant before this song. A Google search taught me that it can relate to a kind of spirit and can take on human or animal forms, and that the traditional idea had been turned into what we know as genies. I can only hazard a guess that this is what Northlane were intending with the title choice, but the beauty and freedom of the choruses feels very fitting as an otherworldly beam of hope in amongst something otherwise impossible and containing.
I’m going on about “Jinn” a bit, as it is a stand-out on the album for me. Buzzing and surrounding, an instrumental moment of “Jinn” oozes conflict; a scrambling where it’s tough to find the beat. But man I can’t get enough of this chorus. In its rhythmically stuttering last utterance, the explosion into something colliding, destructive and paradigm shifting is brilliant. Rhythms and timing are stretched and experimented with and the “I’ve heard this before” thought is foreign as fuck now.
However Northlane may have intended this, I take “Jinn” as a turning point moment; of breaking through barriers, of refusing generational pain, despite (and in spite of) the fact that “the odds were stacked against me”. In-cred-i-ble song that I’d gladly keep playing on a loop if I didn’t need to continue forward through the rest of the album. The song includes city sounds, footsteps, and closing doors, leading into “Eclipse”. These little joining moments between songs are another endearing feature of Alien.
“Eclipse” bounds and tears in front the listener, its tension and energy building progressively. Words lands like punches, fitting for capturing the experience of physical abuse, with threads of emotional pain tying the actions together. Incredibly upbeat, the full and hectic song uses static, unrelenting layers, and pace to craft a sense of constant bombardment – the kind that is perhaps heralded by the arrival of footsteps home at the front door.
Vocal manipulations turn Marcus into something of a wolf in “Eclipse”, and the defiance of “I’m not afraid” comes with wolven strength. But that strength that existed in the previous generation as violence has seemingly evolved into power for change. Sonically this seems proven soon after by pulling the reins on time itself and slowing the song down completely. It screams “I am in control of my life”. There’s again another instrumental/experimental moment at the end of the track, softening the atmosphere before “Rift”.
“The world’s going to end”
“Rift” is immediately stunning. “Eclipse”‘s message continues into “Rift”, with “I’m not afraid” hovering radiantly above, where throbbing tones and ethereal atmospherically painted sounds form a melody. I can barely find a time signature in amongst the vertical layers that we’re walking in amongst, and I kind of don’t mind. Instead of hardened edges in this EDM-esque piece of music, the track feels like walking amongst trees made of paper in a daydream of existence.
Thematically, “Rift” comes across as a musing upon mortality and how death is an undeniable truth for all of us, irrespective of who we are, what our upbringing was like, or what differences we have. Repeating this sentiment over the space of four minutes reinforces the truth of it. In this trance-inducing piece of music that’s more dance than punch, more surrender than fight, we’re soaked in wavering synth and the full appreciation that eventually everything ends.
Wait, this is a Northlane album, right? “Paradigm”‘s first 30 seconds or so could have you feel the need to reaffirm your bearings. Somewhat bounding and melodic and light, it’s only when we land in the grit of screams and fluid riffs that it feels reminiscent of Northlane. With more experimental and unpredictable moments still reverberating, this is a ‘straight-laced’ track in comparison to others.
There’s a lot going on in “Paradigm”, and to my ears there’s constant calls for attention all over the track. It’s the halfway point (“Standing where it all began”) which stands out to me; capturing a moment in time, having endured torture and risen into someplace else, and connecting in with someone else that perhaps hasn’t overcome this yet. It could be understood as teetering on an edge and wanting to truly overcome the past. Growing fangs and fierceness at its end, “Paradigm” flexes and shifts into something else. It’s a curious pocket of sound, almost primal, with its distant wailing, broken and ‘lazy’ beats, and a drop of pace.
This shift becomes “Vultures”, the first single released that hadn’t gripped me anywhere near as much as the other two had. Nonetheless, it’s fierce and punishing and the track easily fits into the narrative to an internal struggle. It could even be sharing some of the internal debate leading to sharing what we’ve heard in Alien, versus keeping it withheld.
The sky high cries of “Where do I go” are a key moment of “Vultures”, where the protagonist’s state of alienation has them look around and see nothing but enemies or questionable agendas. Pummelling beats and wild riffs culminate in this track that whips the listener like a windstorm, there’s also barely reachable voices and tones in “Vultures”.
A delicious turning point is served at the bridge of “Vultures”: “I feel their claws sinking in / As the life spirals out from my inner self / Let the earth where I carved my name / Burn”. Leaving its mark, defiance again reins supreme. The state of being backed up against the wall and feeling a need to defend against everyone and hide truths is felt in “Vultures” in its palpable panic.
As the last track, “Sleepless” is beautiful and comes across as a farewell. Mostly piano (but not at all limited by what the definition of this seems like it would be!), there’s a lot expressed by this song. Slipping and skipping beats reflect a quickened pace and it’s unsettled but clear. Bass pulses land in this line-drawing song of letting go.
As one last chance to make me cry, Northlane do it at the halfway mark, where a collection of instrumental and vocal energy joins forces to land a statement of “I never left it all behind”. Marcus’s voice sparks goosebumps, and though I’m not privy to what this is about, it’s still shared in a way that has an emotional punch. Something that had happened was never forgotten, perhaps never forgiven. The mix of thickened and sparse moments works well to capture the sense of having to make a choice and it not being taken lightly.
This is a lot of words to reflect my experience with Alien. So much more than ‘a metalcore album’, Northlane’s fifth album embodies its title of difference and isolation. Foreign to any specific ‘planet’ of genre, Alien does not care. It’s like the metaphorical weird kid in the movie who turns out to prove his brilliance beyond prejudged quirks and save the day by being his weird self.
Despite the album’s futuristic title and the band sonically leaning into electro abundant samples and sounds at times, Alien is a present day take on life that’s grounded in reality. It’s the encapsulation of being alone, being different, and the strength that is to be found in the worst experience of alienation. Alienated at home, at school, and in a life requiring effort to overcome generational patterns, it’s unsurprising that this album is something that’s moving in its captures of discomfort or assuming of defiant stances.
Though Alien is clearly a very personal album which takes life-defining moments and lays them out vulnerably, I can’t help feel like Alien is also a hand outstretched to fellow souls who’ve had to endure painful experiences of rejection, isolation, misunderstanding. Perhaps most powerfully to those still enduring these things. The album is a reminder of what can be overcome and is a stunning example of what fearless strength looks/sounds like. It’s also impressive as a fifth album for a band to come with this sense of freshness and vibrance. There’s nothing tired or phoned in about Alien. All killer, no filler.
Back later, listening to “Jinn” on repeat.
Alien releases on August 2nd via UNFD and is available for pre-order: https://usa.24hundred.net/collections/unfd
A fresh leap forward for Northlane that's innovative, meaningful, and beautiful.