Chris Day may be the last man standing from the original lineup in NORMA JEAN, but that hardly means this band is dead. If anything, adding three new players since the group's last round, "Meridonal" has sparked a sense of urgency. Their latest album, "Wrongdoers", will often remind loyal fans of the group's frenzied early years even as NORMA JEAN appears to be scraping out a new identity.
"Hive Minds" starts the album with one of the most straightforward plots (straightforward for NORMA JEAN, anyway) that builds touchy anticipation and gives an immediate impression by the gnarling bass lines and deliberate splooging of the front and back vocals that NORMA JEAN means to kick the snot out of this album. That ends up being the case in most spots, though necessarily not through the entire ride. This is a new NORMA JEAN responding to a climate change where screamo and metalcore acts are hanging on borrowed time and their continued sustenance relies on reinvention.
What NORMA JEAN is doing right even with the roster shakeup is keeping true to their chaotic selves while taking a flexible step forward. The blistering "If You Got it at Five, You Got it at Fifty" and "The Potter Has No Hands" are reminiscent of "O God, the Aftermath"-era NORMA JEAN. It's all there, right down to Cory Brandan Putman's loose cannon woofing, the sprawling pandemonium, the static echoes and screechy feedback shrills. Subsequently, the title track teases with more of the same during the intro and on the second verse before settling into tempered, harmonic choruses that tread perilously close to emo. At least the breakdowns get in and get out while Brandan Putman roughs up any intended sweetness on "Wrongdoers"' choruses.
On the flipside, the gnawing end section of "The Potter Has No Hands" is full of brackish guitar scrapes even set to an extended breakdown slide it transitions into one of the album's nastiest sequences. Interestingly, it's outdone within seconds by the churning bass intro to "Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes", even if the latter song assumes a slower course than what NORMA JEAN fans are accustomed to. In this case, the switch to a more conventional rock mode turns a pretty good trick. NORMA JEAN is still louder than your prototype AOR pop metal band, and as close as "Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes" veers in that direction, the effervescent choruses are still way too chunky for mainstream purposes.
Better is the minute-plus carnage NORMA JEAN wrings out of "The Lash Whistled Like a Singing Wind", setting up the grinding viciousness of "Neck in the Hemp" and "Triffids". While ringing like the "Redeemer" years, there's a lingering collision of punishing riffs and (most notably in the case of "Triffids") a reaching-out for counterpoint melody. They accomplish this without turning soft soap. NORMA JEAN is as heavy as ever and "Funeral Singer" is this album's noisome climax, dishing out speed, tumbled riffs and tone-drenched bass rumbles. Cast between the brisk moving insanity is the stretch for a hummable chorus or two and the strategy plays out perfectly.
Unfortunately, a befuddling string of nonsense following the closing anti-ballad "Sun Dies, Blood Moon" comes close to derailing the entire project altogether. After punching this album home within the first seven of the track's fifteen minutes, hardcore fans will hardly be deterred. The lucid bass troughs, acoustic sways and clean singing following the dirty front end of "Sun Dies, Blood Moon" proves that NORMA JEAN has the full capacity to write outside of their comfort zone. The artistic second and third sections are strangely beautiful, and at seven minutes, it would've become an instant tour de force. However, the attached dickering and nattering that clunks like sound check mode becomes a prolonged nuisance. "Wrongdoers" has so much going for it, gents, so cut the crap, already.
Nevertheless, NORMA JEAN comes out like gangbusters through much of this album and despite yet another facelift in personnel, this is a band that still matters when most of their ilk have been outgrown by their demographic.