Music Review: Northstar – Is This Thing Loaded?

This review was originally posted on absolutepunk.net September 10, 2007. Northstar released their debut album Is This Thing Loaded? twenty years ago. Like Brand New, Northstar always felt a level above other bands in the scene. My writing here is far from my best, but at least I recognized talent. Here’s a good retrospective write-up and interview with Nick Torres.

Every music fan knows of a defunct band that never received the success they rightfully deserved. These bands are close to our hearts, and though we wished them the greatest success, we feel honored to be the few who recognize their talent. Northstar was one of those bands.

It’s difficult to recall the details, but at some time before Is This Thing Loaded? was released, I happened upon a demo of “Broken Parachute.” The two things that struck me most about the song upon subsequent listens were the guitar work and the somewhat odd lyrics. At the time I would listen almost exclusively to pop punk, so it was quite a surprise to hear a band that knew what it meant to rock. It was also interesting to hear lyrics of an ambiguous nature describing the stomping of monsters, running from the heartless, befriending a bottle for its soothing contents, and a woeful narrator on the brink of giving up.

“Broken Parachute” was a fitting introduction to Northstar, but Is This Thing Loaded? offers so much more. For one thing, the album proves that guitarist/vocalist Nick Torres is a songwriter to be appreciated. “Rigged and Ready,” the first song of the album, provides an example of what Torres is capable of. His delivery is drawn out and smooth (‘I’m thinking she needs me / Well do you girl? / I guess we’ll see’), but amplifies with the music while avoiding unnecessary screaming. However, there are moments in every song in which Torres produces short bursts of scratchy singing when he reaches his breaking point. Such a moment can be found on “My Ricochet”, as he repeats ‘I guess it’s that bad’ to the crashing of drummer Gabe Renfroe’s cymbals. These moments exist in every song, usually set to climactic music, and they are always welcome. But even if his voice is commendable, what really makes Torres’ vocals shine are the lyrics he articulates.

As mentioned previously, the lyrics of Northstar go beyond simple writing and implement grammatical tools like metaphors, similes, and symbols, so technically they lean more toward poetry than prose. The result is writing that is deep and satisfying in its vagueness. And like so many poets that came before him, Torres has a female target in mind. On “My Ricochet,” he serenades with the best of them, creating a holy image of his intended lover: ‘Why do you float way up there? / In disguise in dirty air / Why don’t you melt way down here / With heaven so far and hell so near.’ Though he can be smooth, Torres is not always gentle when speaking to the ear of a lover out of grasp. He has something to prove as he pursues his “Cinderella.” She’s shot down every one of his friends, and he is clearly frustrated in his attempts to win her. Still, he falls victim to her disinterest just as his friends before him, and Torres comes to realize the futility of words: ‘Well under razor wrists lie the gorgeous words that will put her under my skin / But I’m alone again.’

By this point the review probably sounds like a personal dedication to Nick Torres, but rest assured the whole band deserves credit for helping make Is This Thing Loaded? sound so damn good. Torres, Renfroe, guitarist Tyler Odem, and bassist Shawn Reagan add complexity to their instruments and provide an almost flawless foundation for Torres’ voice and words. The dual guitar combination of Odem and Torres is serene at times, but has a perfect crunching distortion to match the heightened action of choruses and outros. A fitting example of this can be found on “Taker Not a Giver,” one of the album’s best. Airy guitar sounds accompany Torres as he sings, ‘I’m falling together, alone in wonder… land,’ but as soon as the last word is uttered, the real show starts. Rhythm and lead are wonderfully hectic together as Renfroe inserts drum rolls to heighten the commotion. “Taker Not a Giver” has a great chorus in the traditional sense, but the instrumental work between the band is the real high point of the song. Reagan can be overshadowed by the guitarists at times, but he is anything but a backseat bassist. He controls the tone of verses, setting the mood well, especially on “My Ricochet,” while Torres ruminates on matters of heaven and hell. Renfroe accordingly paces the songs, though he does lash out at moments, leaving the band behind to speed things up and take control. Listen to the abuse he dishes out on the bass pedal at the final moments of “Cinderella” to see what I mean; it’s three seconds of bliss just when it seems all the surprises of the song have been revealed.

Torres’ final lyrics of the album are ‘I’m classic and late / Plastic and fake,’ then only the feedback is left. Is This Thing Loaded? is indeed a classic, though there’s nothing fake about it. This is the real deal. There’s no need to nitpick which exact genre the album falls under, so let’s not. Is This Thing Loaded? will appease anyone stuck merely reminiscing about depth in musicians and lyrical content. If you don’t own this album yet, what are you waiting for?

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