I was kind of a late-adopter with Norma Jean, I’ll readily admit it. It wasn’t until around 2005 that I got turned on to these guys, which was just before Redeemer came out, and I’ve been on fucking board ever since. Being from Atlanta it was kind of a no-brainer to get into them, but at the time I was busy with my own music, a fledgling radio career, and I was also nearly constantly bombarded with people telling me why I should be listening to like 2,356 metalcore bands that sounded about the same to my ears.
I like punk, I like metal, and I like hardcore. I like a lot of music, and I definitely skew towards the dark and heavy, but the early 2000’s were so oversaturated with formulaic metalcore (or whatever the fuck you want to call it) and kids with THAT haircut that I just kinda tuned out. There were standouts, sure- bands like Every Time I Die and He Is Legend took the genre to new and lofty heights- but the majority were just rehashing Killswitch Engage riffs that Killswitch Engage had already kinda been recycling for a few years by then too. Nothing was fucking grabbing me by the throat and screaming into my face ” I AM ALIVE AND I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ASSHOLE!”, that is, until I heard Norma Jean.
I had a friend who played me the first couple albums and I liked what I heard, but it wasn’t until the opening notes of “A Grand Scene for a Color Film” on Redeemer that I had my “grabbed by the throat” experience. From there, it was off to the fucking races, folks.
Norma Jean falls into the most perfect of sonic sweet-spots for me. In a blender, you take the off-kilter and esoteric leanings of bands like Tool and Meshuggah, you mix it with the low-tuned and groove-centric sensibilities of later-period Deftones, filter it all through the abrasive and corrosive metal/hardcore of bands like Botch and Converge, and top it all off with a cherry and whipped-cream of fist-in-the-fucking-air punk rock energy and the end result- One of the longest sentences I’ve ever written, and a perfect summation of what Norma Jean is to me. They take parts of everything I love about heavy music and make it something vital, electric, and totally their own. It is important music and to me they are by far the most exciting thing out on the road right now. If you’re not on board already, just spend a few minutes with their new album “All Hail” and you will be.
For my money, one of the heaviest things I’ve ever heard in my life is when “I, The Planet” kicks in, the album opener for Norma Jean’s previous record “Polar Similar”. When Cory Brandan screams “I hope you BURN” I don’t give a fuck WHO he is talking about- that shit is immediate, and it gives me chills every fucking time, even still. That album was a stunner, but then again so was “Wrongdoers” and so was….you get the point, I dig these guys. The thing about Norma Jean is though, they take the term aging gracefully” and they fucking run laps around every other band with it. Nevermind the fact that the new Tool album is fucking phenomenal, a lot of bands just can’t keep it up. The less we talk about Slipknot’s new shit the better (does anything matter much after Iowa anyway?), and I could like a hundred others RIGHT NOW. I mean, keeping up that level of apeshit intensity and bone chilling catharsis MUST be tough to do, but every time my brain tries to make that argument Norma Jean reminds me that it can be done- and well.
On “All Hail”, Cory Brandan and crew make what might be the definitive statement of their career. It is heavy as an airplane full of dead elephants, it channels Explosions In The Sky atmospherics at times, and it is challenging but accessible in all the right places. Yet again, the album STARTS at “holy shit” and doesn’t let up. It ebbs, it flows, but it never get tired, it never gets stale, and it’s one of the best albums of 2019 for sure- and fuck genre, this thing is great across the board.
I’ve only had the time to listen to it all the way through once but I needed to write this NOW and here’s the story: I’d listened to all the singles they released before the album dropped and I was MASSIVELY stoked. I wanted to save my first listen for just the right time and this morning in Atlanta it was foggy, dreary, and (to me) the perfect morning for a run. So, I strapped on my headphones, hit play on “All Hail”, and I hit the pavement. I then proceeded to run faster, harder, and with more urgency than I had run in a LONG time. It was as though i was being chased by bears. I must have looked fucking crazy as shit to passers-by. All scowl, spitting, breathing, and beating the shit out of my feet like a maniac. I choked on my saliva once or twice, I pushed myself WAY harder than I probably should have, and I felt alive as FUCK for every second of it. It was life-affirming and it was awesome, I’m still sweating as I’m typing this in fact.
That perfectly encapsulates the album to me, it’s dark and heavy and all that jazz- but it is also a fucking celebration. Maybe not in that “party up” sort of way, but more in the “I”M ALIVE AND I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY, ASSHOLE!” kind of way. I don’t know how the hell Cory Brandan still screams like that while also managing to be melodic and atmospheric at the same time. I also don’t care if he’s Christian or not, and I’m a pretty staunch non-believer- Cory tackles subjects like life, faith, death, hypocrisy, etc. with conviction and purpose, he’s always said “I’m a Christian but we’re not necessarily a Christian band”, and I respect him for being true to himself. It’s not about all of us believing the same shit kiddos, it’s about not being a dick about whatever it is we DO believe in and Cory exemplifies that ideal in spades. You don’t scream like that unless the words are BLEEDING from you, you don’t write riffs like this unless you NEED to (huge props Grayson Stewart and the rest of the band, cause every fucking note is stupendous), and you don’t give people chills like this album does if you’re full of shit. This is the kind of music that happens when you’re at the top of your fucking game. Norma Jean has gone through some pretty well documented lineup changes, some pretty recent too, but they have gelled their sound over the past couple albums into something that is modern, crushing, and about ten steps ahead of what everyone else is doing.
Heavy to me, by the way, isn’t about the “sickest breakdowns”, or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Satan” blastbeats- heavy is a mood, heavy is when the hairs on my arm stand up from a riff, heavy is when a lyric slaps you in the face with the truth and it MUST be said that this album is essentially doing ALL of those things for the entirety of its runtime. This is ESSENTIAL listening if you even remotely like this kind of music, period. It just NAILS everything it does, and believe me- I’ll end up listening to this album like I did Fear Inoculum– so far about 376 times, no bullshit.
Like my video game reviews, I’m not going to be scoring my album reviews. It misses the fucking point, plus this isn’t the Olympics. I’m also not gonna break down the track list and all that shit, Kerrang and all the others have already done that shit anyway. I’ll be sharing MY experience with you but I DO want to let you know one of my highlights so far. There is a lyric in “If [Loss] Then [Leader] which perfectly encapsulates how I feel about Norma, Jean, “All Hail“, and the world at large in 2019: “If you fall down, you are never crawling out if that’s where you want to be”.
If you want to see the darkness in the world then you will. If you want to beat yourself up instead of clawing your way to the light, that’s what you’ll do. Garbage in, garbage out- this life is 100% what we make it and if we want it to be shitty, it’ll damn sure be shitty. That’s Norma Jean to me in a nutshell too- it’s dark, it’s heavy, but it is so full of life that it makes me instantaneously run a 10K. You can find the album in all the usual places, and you should do so NOW- and you can interact with the band here and here. You can also find the excellent and long-running Solid State Records here. Thanks for reading!
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