Expectations and history are funny things, especially when a first impression is so impactful. Such is the case for Australian group Northlane, whose early releases (Discoveries and Singularity) helped define the progressive metalcore style. After setting such a high bar early on, change and reckoning were inevitable. With the addition of vocalist Marcus Bridge, Northlane zigged instead of zagging, digging deeper into their more ethereal and ambient influences and harnessing Bridge’s wide vocal range; it was a disappointment for those who missed mathematically-inclined breakdown barrages, but (at least to these ears) Node is likely the group’s most cohesive and impressive release to date. Node’s lush bombast soothed and scratched that heavy itch at the same time, which is a rare feat. Thus, Northlane’s history of high expectations and embrace of pushing themselves has given credence to the idea that they’ll do whatever they want, even if that’s not what listeners (or fans) expect. So how does Alien, the band’s pivotal fifth release stack up?
What’s immediately interesting is how Alien takes what worked best in their two eras while also blazing a totally new path forward. If you’re going in expecting another Singularity or Node, you’ll be met halfway by this record. Hell, if you’re even just looking for similar quality to those past releases, this may not be for you. That’s because Alien is so very much better. Featuring the band’s best riffs ever (just peep “Talking Heads”, “Jinn”, “Vultures”, or “Paradigm”), Bridge at his most ferocious (“Details Matter”, “Talking Heads”) and his most exquisite (“Bloodline”, “Rift” and “Sleepless”). This is Northlane operating at peak efficiency, even if that excellence differs from expectations.
That’s because Alien really does feel rather (sorry) alien to the Northlane that we knew. There are songs and moments more akin to mid-career Enter Shikari than Singularities, and there is a decided nu-metal and industrial edge to many of the riffs. Interestingly, many of them are just as (if not more) complex than the group’s history; it’s just that riffs feel primal now rather than mathematical. Just like the best industrial, Alien does feel like electronic body music, designed purely to propel humans to move. Sure, the songs won’t go over well with the EDM crowd (save for the synthwave-y “Rift”), but the electronic edge is every bit as important as the more organic aspects of Northlane’s sound now.
All this is to say that no matter what you thought about or want out of Northlane, Alien delivers on all fronts. It’s as momentously heavy as their back catalogue, as pensive as their mid-career work, and the future’s bright for this Aussie crew. This is easily one of – if not the – best albums of the year.