Northlane – Obsidian (Album Review)

Northlane Obsidian review

Northlane – Obsidian 
Released: April 22, 2022 

Lineup

Jon Deiley // guitar, programming, bass
Josh Smith // guitar
Nic Pettersen // drums
Marcus Bridge // vocals

Online

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I can’t think of a cleverer way to start this review so here are some Fun Obsidian Facts: Obsidian is just fancy volcanic lava rapidly cooled; it’s actually quite sharp; can be surprisingly brittle and easily chipped/scratched; won’t really work practically as a blade; and it lands around a 5 or 6 on the Mohs Hardness Scale whereas diamonds are harder, sitting at a ten. More ya know.

As for the musical Obsidian, singer Marcus Bridge recently told Wall Of Sound’s Ricky Aarons, when asked to describe this self-produced album in one word, that it’s “grim” and “unresolved.” (That ain’t one word but okay.) That the world right now is obviously chaotic and uncertain, and that’s reflected in this album’s sound and theme. While I personally wouldn’t label this record as chaotic, not by other 2022 standards in heavy music, it definitely captures an “unresolved” sense. It doesn’t have the answers and it’s not trying to offer many; it’s just trying to process shit, both personal and broader topics, via another cybernetic helping of acid synthesizers and low-tuned riffs. (Wait, this paragraph would’ve served fine as an intro. Don’t cut that opening out, Browny! The people need to know about Fun Obsidian Facts! Don’t do it, don’t silence me, they must-)

I wanted to love Obsidian, I really did. But alas, I don’t, nowhere close to the same incredibly passionate way I feel about its predecessor. It’s indeed a logical continuation of what Alien achieved with its sound, but this time that comes with caveats. To the point where it’s mostly just Alien 1.5; like a DLC expansion making smaller steps rather than a fully-fledged evolution from the previous effort. The giant leap that was made from 2017’s Mesmer over to their 2019 magnum opus has not been replicated. This is a dark and heavy record, with a bigger emphasis on the techno and EDM blended over razor-sharp prog-metalcore. On Alien, the synthetic elements were additive, supportive, but now they’re closer linked to the old Northlane than ever before. Yet that harder push has an end result of this new collection, with maybe only three exceptions, failing to rival what came before. I often found there was nothing on par with Jinn, Enemy of the Night, Bloodline, 4D or Details Matter. However, while underwhelming, it’s also not some cosmic miss-fire.

One of the issues I personally run up against is that on many of these 13 songs, Northlane hones in on one or two specific ideas or patterns, creating that core EDM framework that listeners are supposed to physically lock into. That if some totally munted unit heard just these instrumentals at some alt club, they’d still ping away until their heart’s content. This writing approach definitely achieves that intended next step in the band’s hybrid sound of electronica, techno, prog and metalcore, but on the other side, noticeably reduces the dynamics and for lack of a better term, streamlines but simplifies the music in some ways. While we get fresh ideas like the lovely 2000s-esque ‘Nova’ – the record’s most unique moment and a delicate, string-laden late-game ballad highlight that I just love – we get a lot of nothing songs that border on filler. Making this album the most annoying kind of sword: double-edged.

The evergreen warning about social media echo chambers, from insular Facebook communities to Discord servers and subreddits, that’s told of on ‘Echo Chamber’ is a clear culprit of this. It’s a fine enough track, if very straightforward and with a more interesting message than the medium, it’s one that doesn’t really go anywhere interesting. Outside of that far heavier middle-eight, which isn’t even that unique of a heavy passage for this band or genre. (Though no one can deny how Bridge belts out “something’s gotta give sooner or later” in the second and third chorus is awesome.) The worst offender was ‘Is This A Test?’, a passable-at-best mid-album pace changer that operates the way ‘Rift’ did before, but not as well. Steady kick drums thump under open hi-hats creating this trance groove as off-beat guitar chugs move around the percussion, with random vocalizations from their frontman mostly just singing the song’s title. It honestly sounds like Northlane are playing on auto-pilot.

This is something also felt on a later cut, ‘Inamorata’, a fancy word for ‘female lover.’ A perfectly nice tune that I genuinely feel bad that I’m about to sh*t on because it’s wholesome, written about a girlfriend of Bridge’s – current or former, I have no clue as I don’t know the guy – and her effect on the singer: “You drained my lungs of water, so I could breathe. My ankles locked in concrete, you broke me free.” Yet it has zero intriguing climaxes, no tension, and offers no new ground explored. Obsidian really does have some of the least engaging tracks these guys have released in quite some time. To that point, this is their most repetitive release, or at least, it feels like it is due to what I’ve just discussed and how these songs flow both individually and together. (Also doesn’t help how Bridge, as amazing a singer he is, reuses some of the chorus melodies, and how the guitars are often obsessed with hammering just the low-string and nothing else.) This is a weird position for me to arrive at because I also love the shit out of Health, who does something very similar to the feeling and pacing of Obsidian in their songs, and are a group that’s had considerable impact on this current era of Northlane. (They actually remixed Bloodline for the 5G EP, which was pretty huge.)

In November 2021, long before the album’s eventual release this week, Northlane released what I’d call the “mission statement” for Obsidian on their socials. In one slide, guitarist/programmer and now-bassist, Jon Deiley, mentioned how he wanted to “steer the band away from riff city,” adding that he’d “written enough riffs and contributed enough to the metal world.” Okay, fair enough. But upon hearing Obsidian for the first time, I immediately thought back to this quote and how fucking baffling it was. As this contains as many metal riffs as any other record of theirs. All of them well-rounded in tone and how they gel with the other instruments and vocals. (I won’t bother commenting on Nolly’s mixing because it goes without saying it’s bloody solid at this stage.)

Make no mistake, Northlane are definitely pushing the synthesizers more, and that’s a good thing. Get even f*cking weirder with it, I say! But that quote is a confusing, borderline deceitful statement given how 12 of these 13 songs are pretty emblematic of Northlane’s usual sound: still highly rhythmic, down-tuned, guitar-driven pieces of heavy music that YouTube guitar reactionaries will cream their tight black jeans over. Hard to believe that someone who had a hand in writing/tracking the standout title track, a humanity commentary that legitimately sounds hardened like actual obsidian in part thanks to Bridge’s low vocal takes, or the irresistible nu-metal staccato movements of the kick-ass battery-anthem ‘Cypher’ (the two sickest tracks on offer), would utter such a statement. “Alexa, can you sue bands for false advertisement of their new music?”

Then there’s opener, ‘Clarity’. Perfectly situated as the first song due to it lyrically bridging the gap between this album and the previous, dealing with both personal and social fallouts regarding what their frontman bravely revealed about his childhood to the world in 2019. When the track properly kicks in alongside Nic Pettersen’s endurance-testing punk blasts after the minute mark, we’re hit with the most quintessential Northlane riffage ever. Or look at the irritating ‘Xen’, a heavy yet jarring song with choruses that don’t feel earned and a prolonged synth outro that adds nothing to the song or album, getting crammed with eerily similar dissonance and harmonics from ‘Obelisk’. No disrespect to Deiley, he’s a good performer and writer, and I am goofing around a little, but my brother in Christ, have you actually heard the album you’re a part of? For instance, see ‘Plenty.’ A rejection of reincarnation – as in, already having experienced plenty so why do it again? – it’s a cool track but it’s also a facsimile of what Northlane has done for shy of a decade, kinda feeling like a sister track to ‘Freefall’, and is ultimately more of their metalcore-riff-city.

Okay, here’s a “quick-fire” round for the rest of the album, starting with ‘Clockwork’. The record’s first single and a pretty good song really grew on me. ‘Clockwork’ provides an interesting meta-commentary on the cycles of writing and pressure to create in a timely manner for your next release. (“I’m running out of time…”) A highly repetitive rhythmic synth patch runs throughout, sitting underneath the rest of the vocals and instrumentals, but it’s a decent ostinato that allows one of the album’s best choruses, and some of their more angular prog-metal passages to fire-off from. Go dome losers as Thunderbird in Siege to that dope refrain.

‘Carbonized’ kicks off with on-edge basslines and that gravelly “I’m too sexy for my shirt” metalcore vocalist timbre that’s a meme by now. With a music video that was bathed in glitch green Matrix tones, this cyber-ninja hacker-core track isn’t half bad. At worst, it’s just very Northlane in sound. And the way that Bridge sings like. This. In the. Ver-ses. Is a little corny but I can live with it. (Though not so much the hilarious rhyming scheme of “conscience” with “self-conscious” in the song’s second verse. What I really like about this fourth song, however, is that it’s Northlane stating that abusers and predators in the music scene will not get away with their crimes. That we shouldn’t let them off the hook because their new album was super heavy. A quote from Bridge reads: “Time and time again, the phrase ‘separate the artist from the art’ is used to discount and deflect the damage these people have inflicted on those around them. Whether it’s manipulating minors or putting a hit out on your wife, it shocks me that fans will forget all about it because their latest track is really heavy.” I could not agree more! Aussie music has had no shortage of its abuse and misconduct allegations and stories: Dealer, With Confidence, Football Club, Ne Oblivscaris, The Faim, and so on. Let’s all uphold a better standard.

If I was a shittier writer than I already am, I’d probably joke about how it was nice that Northlane summarized ‘Abomination’’s quality with its title. But I won’t. Seemingly about that “beast” inside all of us, and how we can feel ourselves slipping in our patience and anger (that “re-emerging as a monster” lyric is unintentionally hilarious), this is another questionable auto-pilot of moment of synths and riffs that feels like lazily filling time. No matter how many passes I take of it.

Last but not least is ‘Dark Solitaire’, which is an interesting finale, as it does feel unresolved. Like there’s more the band wanted to say, like there should’ve been more music after it. Cementing the fact that this sixth LP isn’t anywhere near as ground-breaking for their style as Alien, this closer embodies my whole opinion on Obsidian: good performances from talented musicians, but with the writing and structure missing the mark for me. That being said, there’s heart present: the title and lyrics of this last song reads as someone playing a mental game on themselves that they can’t escape from. In fact, Bridge actually states at the end: “I’m still trying to be what I see in myself, but I need help”. And I do genuinely, sincerely, hope he finds that help and closure.

Again, that closer and ‘Obsidian’ as a whole, feel unresolved. Unsatisfying by design almost. Don’t get me wrong, I understand how a lack of resolution can be compelling in art. I love that about Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and this year’s staggering Elden Ring, how the full story and world-building is left up to the player to decipher. (Or to whichever lore nerd they’re subscribed to on YouTube.) Sometimes, you get something resembling an answer, and sometimes, it’s only speculation. Other times, something being unresolved stings. I’m a fan of the Berserk series, but that manga will likely never see Guts’ iconic tale of revenge complete as creator Kentaro Miura passed away last year. As for Northlane, it stings a little. I think that description, that unresolved nature, actually applies more to the complicated familial relationships and traumatic experiences discussed within Alien. Something that makes that record as real and as gripping as it was and still is. By Obsidian’s own merits, it is NOT mediocre or awful; “just okay” is where I’m at with it currently. For most everything on Obsidian hits and lands differently. And that difference is, well, lesser.

Northlane Obsidian review

Northlane – Obsidian tracklisting:

1. Clarity
2. Clockwork
3. Echo Chamber
4. Carbonized
5. Abomination
6. Plenty
7. Is this a Test?
8. Xen
9. Cypher
10. Nova
11. Inamorata
12. Obsidian
13. Dark Solitaire

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
Obsidian is out Friday, April 22nd via Believe. Pre-Order/save here
Reviewed by Alex Sievers @AlexJSievers

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