Northstar is one of the best bands you’ve never heard of. Their star burned brightly, if only for two studio albums. Is this Thing Loaded is the band’s debut album and an impressive release both in performance and production. Taking Back Sunday, in the liner notes for their genre defining album from the same year Tell All Your Friends, claims Northstar is “the greatest band ever”. Not a recommendation to ignore. Released in 2002 through Triple Crown records, the same label that issued Brand New’s first two albums, Is this Thing Loaded should have placed the band in the same epic tier of their aforementioned peers. It didn’t. But if you’d like to hear what could have been Northstar’s albums are free to stream for our patrons on Freegal.
If you haven’t noticed by now I’m a little obsessed with this period in alternative rock. Something magical occurred just as the new millennium was kicking off. There seemed to be a convergence of the best elements of emotional hardcore, pop punk, and alt rock. Is this Thing Loaded is that sound in all its angsty glory. The up-tempo assault of distorted guitars and pained vocals are simultaneously formulaic and inspired.
More than a sonic barrage of thick guitars and aggressive back beats, Is this Thing Loaded displays some excellent songwriting chops by breaking up the wall of sound with some more reserved intros, outros, and transitions. Passages in many songs take on an almost Midwestern clean tone with sparkly guitar chord deconstruction, reminiscent of some of the genres mid period bands. The song, "My Wishing Well Disease" in particular displays the band's ability to seamlessly transition between these softer sections into a more thundering and intense chorus or breakdown. It’s clear that Northstar constructs these songs very deliberately, leaving nothing to circumstance.
The drumming across the album supports the structure of these songs wonderfully, often exploring some interesting rhythms and fills. The drum outro on the track "Broken parachute" may not be Neal Peart levels of complex, but the groove is infectious and a fun way to lead out the song. There are many subtle structural decisions across the album that reflect the band’s commitment to their craft in every instrumental choice.
The production is just as intentional as the song writing and supports the band’s sound well. The panning on the guitars helps to highlight the more subdued melodies and bring them out in the mix so they’re not buried behind the rhythm guitar and bass lines. The vocals are seated somewhat deep in the mix but remain prominent enough that the lyrics are intelligible. If I had one complaint here it would be that the softer passages tend to sit too low in the mix. That is, there’s a little bit too much dynamic range between some sections where more compression is needed to sustain a comfortable listening level.
Another weak point lies with the lyrics. While lightyears from bad, this may be where Northstar’s more celebrated peers earned their spots at the top and what distinguishes a good band from a great one. The metaphors and imagery are creative and engaging but lack any personal character. Pain, pleasure, drama, and strife are where the lines point, but a clear sense of voice is lacking. This makes the very emotional experiences behind the songs feel too abstract.
All in all Is this Thing Loaded is a fantastic release that deserves a little more attention and I hope this post has found it some new fans. As always, if this style is your jam please check out this album and their second release, “Pollyanna” on Freegal. Also, be sure to check out my other album reviews and leave me a comment. Until next time, farewell!