Northlane – Obsidian


Sydney quartet, Northlane, are one of the more interesting metalcore bands that evolved their sound over the last few years away from the formulaic to the experimental. Unlike Bring Me the Horizon and Architects, the group went far into industrial and progressive metal instead of chasing monthly Spotify subscribers with a watered-down rock approach. Something clicked with 2019’s Alien record and turned them into a household name in their native Australia and on the international stage. Their current LP, Obsidian, shot to the top of the Australian charts in the first week of release. What’s the secret to their success?

Artists hate the mention of formula, and the word formulaic is a pejorative term in the industry, but Northlane give us something novel to dissect on their sixth album. Those that enjoyed the aggressive industrial-tinged metal of Alien will mull over opener, ‘Clarity’, like a crossword puzzle. When was the last time you heard a metalcore band start with an arpeggiated synth sequence like Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe, Endless’? Listen carefully and you’ll hear one note in the loop that threatens to derail the white science lab environment with a flick of the lights and an eruption of blood. Marcus Bridge switches from soothing reflections to monstrous aggression when you think you’ve figured out the direction – you haven’t. The chaotic Meshuggah bomb in the breakdown follows a programmed trance crescendo. They repeat it near the end after a detour through the prog soundscapes of Tesseract. Scratch your head, you must.

One of the interesting “what if?” questions of modern music is what the Smashing Pumpkins could have created in 1998 if they’d stayed on the path of electronic rock. Perhaps, Northlane answer this on ‘Clockwork’, with their fusion of disco beats and clever key changes for the bridge and chorus. This would open them to a new audience beyond metal if they didn’t inject a cacophony of finger-squirming scream vocals into the middle parts and bombard your ear drums with a slice of de-tuned guitar mayhem. It’s bold, yet it works. The management at Spiritbox should be arranging a co-headlining tour as we speak.

Though an organic evolution from the band’s last three albums, it’s clear that Northlane studied the textures and dynamics of acid house and intelligent dance music (IDM) while contemplating their metallic onslaught. How do they merge the rotating synths and euphoric vibes with the aggro of industrial metal on ‘Echo Chamber’ and ‘Abomination’? The latter will even remind you of ‘Starfuckers Inc’ by Nine Inch Nails in the way its vitriolic sneer draws upon The Prodigy for inspiration. You’ll feel your jaw grinding and your nostrils flaring to the muscular industrial djent of ‘Carbonized’. Note to every generic metalcore band out there – this is how you switch between testosterone aggression and melancholy musing. Music like this piping through your headphones can give you that invincible idea that it’s possible to put your head through a wall.

Imagine if the next Nine Inch Nails album sounded as urgent and as confrontational as the likes of ‘Is This a Test?’ or ‘Cypher’. This is the type of dystopian electronic metal many have tried and failed to execute. That’s because they use electronics as window dressing instead of analysing their Depeche Mode collection for a lesson in how to do it. Not Northlane. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins will find his new favourite band after one listen to the frantic metal intro and golden synth-driven chorus of ‘Xen’. The binary choice is a unique one – do you want to be in the pit or on a dancefloor? If only more metalcore artists could present this conundrum.

No doubt, some of the fanbase will lament the band’s withdrawal of chugging guitars from the foundations of their sound in favour of a lower-range dirge of Veil of Maya grooves. Their decision to explore a sophisticated pop flavour towards the end on ‘Nova and ‘Inamorata’ will also raise eyebrows. Go into this with the wrong mindset, and you’ll find the things you were looking to criticise. But approach it with an appreciation for songcraft, and you’ll know that the former is a gorgeous piece of late afternoon electronic pop like the classic Owl City single, ‘Fireflies’. The metallic savagery of the penultimate title-track will remove any reservations you might have. Be warned: you’ll need to wipe those bloodshot eyes after this one grinds to an end.

Fifty-six minutes is a lengthy affair for one of the most anticipated albums in the industry, but Northlane earned the right to shape the mainstream on their terms with their last record, and they continue with the same momentum here. Obsidian shows that metalcore can evolve. Northlane might even be one album ahead of Code Orange in charting its future.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 22/04/2022

Record Label: Believe Records

Standout tracks: Clockwork, Carbonized, Obsidian

Suggested Further Listening: Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks (2013), Meshuggah – Catch Thirty-Three (2005), Smashing Pumpkins – Cyr (2020)