Despite their numerous lineup changes, NORMA JEAN sets an example for young bands on how to come hungry. It's not so much what the metalcore vets are capable of doing, which has been an exemplary evolution, as much as the fortitude that drives them.
I tell this story frequently, which epitomizes the band's unquenchable desire for ascendency. I'd insisted on taking an assignment to interview NORMA JEAN in 2005 after being blown away by the band's "O God, the Aftermath" album and its brainy, mashed lexicon song titles like "Disconnecktie", "Charactarantula", "Liarsenic" and "Coffinspire". As a fan of expressionistic art, the surrealist imagery inside the packaging of the album further inspired me to meet the band. It was on a memorable bill where I also interviewed ATREYU and UNEARTH, one of the more dizzying but professionally satisfying nights I've ever had. What struck me the most about NORMA JEAN that day was how, literally, sick the band was. It was the dead of winter, and yet three of the five members wanted in on the interview. Not only were they eager to talk and had intelligent things to say, despite fighting severe congestion, they got out on the stage that night and threw down as if it were the last chance they'd ever get to play. Much of the original lineup had rolled out by the time "O God, the Aftermath" was released, yet you could tell Cory Brandon Putman had a keen vision for NORMA JEAN after being its vocalist only a year. This was a group determined to show substance behind their Marilyn Monroe moniker, and considering they'd first started out as LUTI-KRISS.
Cory Brandon Putman alone remains from that pivotal year in NORMA JEAN; guitarist Jeff Hickey claiming dibs to next highest band seniority at five years. The frequent shuffles to NORMA JEAN's lineup over the years may indicate instability, but do consider such high turnover can be attributable to their music being so demanding to play that burnout inevitably sets in. Thus, there's something to be said for making it to album seven, particularly one sometimes dank and sometimes luminous as their ambitious and super-heavy "Polar Similar".
Coming back to Solid State Records after a two-album stint with Razor & Tie, NORMA JEAN has had three years to figure out where to take their probing style of noise core. "Wrongdoers" from 2013 had opened new possibilities after resetting their own scripts on 2008's "The Anti Mother". Here the band opts to go back to their own old school, and they hammer out their galaxy-surfing "Polar Similar" like crunk literati basking in the greatness of BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME with the hope of some celestial rub-off. This is hardly a "Parallax", but to be fair, that's not what NORMA JEAN is wholly after. Having toured with THE OCEAN in the past, this is the more direct aural inspiration to the relentless compression of "Polar Similar", an album with clogging crunch chords galore. Yet this album strives for more than any NORMA JEAN record to date, which says a ton.
This isn't "O God, the Aftermath" or "The Anti Mother", yet it's somewhere between the two; the rambunctious grind and mosh of "Death Is a Living Partner" being a prime harbor where both albums dock together boisterously. Ditto for "Synthetic Sun", which leans more toward the experimental spirit of "The Anti Mother", while carrying its predecessor's boom and occasionally hyper-beat scatters.
What differentiates "Polar Similar" is the strategic chapter breaks of its cumbersome concept. These check points ("The Planet", "The People", "The Nebula" and "The Nexus") are set at a full-tilt rage. Specifically, this is illuminated by "The Planet", one of the best and loudest intro songs on a NORMA JEAN album ever, or in the case of "The People", off-kilter with its disarming coldwave and digital debris. The echoing blues twang on "The Nebula" is wonderfully creative. Nobody following this band could've seen such a wild maneuver coming, but neither do you see the swinging boogie drop into the blunt bombast of "The Close and Discontent" thereafter. At this point in the album, NORMA JEAN has already clobbered their listeners with the jabbing "Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else" and the cataclysmic "Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda".
The massive "1,000,000 Watts" lumbers with an overpowering hardcore groove as Cory Brandon Putman spits all over his mike on the verses, then whines sardonic choruses to counter the song's wrath. The songwriting here is so sharp, it purposefully lets its own guard down in spots to create a somber atmosphere as set up to a broiling breakdown, which lets the guitars soar majestically overtop. Wrapping on a sulky, piano-blotted outro, "1,000,000" is so shrewd it's one reason why, despite this writer's past predictions, metalcore still has life.
"A Thousand Years a Minute" is one of the loudest tracks on the album, its magnificent, moody descant administers a pleasure pill beneath the slogging melancholy. This hypnotic angst carries into the 10:40 finale, "The Nexus", where the shoegazing guitar lines and echoing synths serve up what later becomes a shattering hardcore stomp through its suffocating, bass-whirring cosmos. What's great about "The Nexus" is how NORMA JEAN reaches a certain plateau of aggression where enough is enough, and it's the sparkling, dreamy guitars that gain your attention amidst the tempered bass plot and metrical pulse. As alluded to in this review, "The Nexus" is both a figurative and literal title. Herein NORMA JEAN threads their past with a new spirit of invention. The band creates a meeting point where old is new, something altogether vibrant and forward thinking.
Forward thinking may be NORMA JEAN's damnation, but it's also their grace and why they still matter a great deal.