Mesmer, Northlane’s fifth studio outing, and second featuring vocalist Marcus Bridge, pushes the band’s sound further down the path that Node started on. A slightly poppier sound, lots of groove, and plenty of tasty synth come together to make an altogether solid and enjoyable album, albeit one which fails to capture the magic of the band’s earlier releases.
First thing’s first, I’ve gotta say that the hype-machine surrounding this album has been absolutely fantastic. Mysterious announcements, videos, a chatbot, and the album’s surprise release (so much a surprise that I’ve been forbidden from breathing a word of its existence to anyone, on pain of death) have all contributed to a sense of mystery and excitement around the album that I’m really enjoying. The chatbot is especially cool, linking in with the lyrical themes of the album (touching on moral questions, personal freedoms, and the ever expanding surveillance state). The whole atmosphere is furthered even more by the sense of secrecy surrounding Mesmer. I know it’s not strictly musical, but I do feel like the presentation of the album does play into the experience as a whole, and I’ve enjoyed Mesmer more for the hype surrounding it.
As for the music, I’m going to be honest with you here: the first time I listened to Mesmer, I wasn’t a big fan. The songs sound a bit more commercial than Node, and the riffs sound a bit radio rock at times. Initially, this put me off. However, once I extracted my head from my backside, I started to really enjoy the album. Northlane has managed to fuse catchy riffs, meaningful lyrics, and energetic rhythm into a solid set of songs, and that’s nothing to be sniffed at.
In terms of sound, compared to Node, things feel much more low-fi. Even on the spacier of Node’s songs, the drums were punchy and clear. By contrast, the whole album sounds much fuzzier; drums and bass almost blur together at times into a single sound. This is especially true in “Render”, probably the most chaotic track of the album. The combination of fuzzy guitars and atmospheric synths give it an almost post rock vibe at times. This approach is pretty unique, and it helps the album stand out in an increasingly homogeneous genre.
This shift in sound threw me at first; it’s certainly different, especially compared to the Adrian era of Northlane, but it’s not bad by any means. Once you get used to it, you very quickly come to appreciate the catchy riffs and low-fi production.
Adding to this, synths, often with something of an ‘80s vibe, make an number of appearances throughout the album, and is key in creating much of the record’s atmosphere. This builds directly on the electronic influences and elements that were present in Node, particularly in songs like “Rot”. Unfortunately, the electronic elements aren’t integrated that well into the tracks, often serving simply as short interludes between songs. This is particularly glaring in “Paragon”, where the transition between the intro and the main body of the song is so jarring that, the first time through, I thought I’d accidentally skipped to another track. It’s not like this totally ruins the song, but it’s part of a larger pattern of electronic and synth elements on the record not being optimally used. It’s a shame too; these parts are really well written as a whole, and, if they were made use of properly, could make some great songs. However, as it stands, they’re a bit like glacé icing on carrot cake. It’s not wrong; it’s just that cream cheese icing would be better.
That said, some songs avoid falling into this previously discussed trap. “Savage”, in particular, manages to amalgamate synths and the rest of the instrumentation to create some serious groove. This is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. There’s some use of synths in the background which work well, but I actually found this a bit frustrating; if Northlane had just been a little bolder with them, it could have made for some absolutely excellent music. But, as it stands, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
Particularly interesting is how, for lack of a better word, familiar a lot of the music sounds. Northlane‘s always had a unique sound (some of Invent, Animate‘s work aside), and they still sound distinct, but tracks like “Render” have a structure much more typical of metalcore than songs like “Dispossession” or “Quantum Flux” ever did. Rather than structure, it is their use of electronic elements and fuzzy groovy riffs that makes these songs stand out. I actually struggled to pick artists to put in the “For Fans Of” section at the end of the review because Northlane have succeeded in creating a pretty unique sound once again.
If I sound like I’m being harsh, it’s not because I think Mesmer’s bad; it’s not. But I’m a big fan of Northlane, and Mesmer‘s continuing to push them in a new direction. This direction is exciting and refreshing, particularly in the way that the band skillfully combines various influences into a cohesive whole. Nonetheless, the record does take a little bit of getting used to, particularly when you first hear the poppier offerings on the album. For those of you who are still in love with Adrian, prepare to be disappointed; Marcus seems to be pushing the band in an even more melodic direction than they took with Node. If, however, you’re like me and first got into Northlane with Node, you’re in for a treat. It’s not all good though, I feel that some of the choices regarding the production of the record have done something to reduce the punchiness which we’ve all come to know and love in Northlane‘s music, and the synth use definitely could have been used better. It’s not as groundbreaking as Node, not as heavy as Discoveries, and not as unique as Singularity, but Mesmer has its own sound and enough new ideas to keep the listener entertained. It’s just a shame it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Notable Tracks: “Citizen”; “Zero-One”; “Veridian”
FFO: In Hearts Wake, Clutch, 65DaysOfStatic