Norma Jean have been around for a minute, 20 years worth of minutes to be exact. And somewhere along the way from their early beginnings as a chaotic hardcore band that specialized in aping Botch and Coalesce, they morphed into their own entity. All of the sudden a new album is on the table and the narrative changes from you sounding like other bands to other bands sounding like you. To earn that distinction is a measure of success over a long career and you can now only be compared to the work that proceeded you as a measuring stick. That brings us to Polar Similar, the 7th and latest addition to their discography.
There’s a lot to like about Polar Similar. Early in the summer, we were treated to the advance track “Synthetic Sun”, a song that seemed like a logical progression from where Norma Jean’s previous album, Wrongdoers left off. This also happens to be one of the standout tracks on the record for the way in which it uses equal parts aggression and melody to give one the impression that Norma Jean are about outdo their previous effort. The repetitious guitar lead that starts off in the beginning of the song darts in and out of focus and is combined with screaming/singing vocals to form a song that is captivating and engaging throughout.
For tracking this album, Norma Jean decided to record in isolation with no distractions at Pachyderm Studio in the woods of Minnesota during the winter (Nirvana’s In Utero was recorded here). They also decided to watch Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror thriller, The Shining repeatedly during their downtime to drag themselves down deeper into the album they were making. The finished product is an adventurous album that takes some risks while still keeping Norma Jean’s core sound intact. For those looking for the aggressive style of metallic hardcore that the band has been known for, they’ve got you covered. “Death Is A Living Partner” storms out of the gates with blast beats and hardcore/punk adrenaline, familiar territory for many bands of this style, but new territory for Norma Jean who handle it like true professionals and act like they’ve done it before. The one-two punch of “III. The Nebula” and “The Close And The Discontent” take a different approach. The former is a Delta blues instrumental with just reverb-drenched guitar, the latter sounding like if Sepultura started jacking Clutch. In print that must sound like it has no shot of being any good and it instead turns out to be a bold move that pays off by hypnotizing you with its groove and clobbering you with the power packed energy. “An Ocean of War” brings strong Botch vibes and makes you wonder what the long retired chaotic hardcore legends would’ve sounded like if they had kept on. The song closes out in spectacular fashion with a vibrant screechy riff that will have you spin kicking so hard that you’ll decapitate everyone within a three foot radius. “Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda” gives off similar feelings as “Synthetic Sun” and features a guest vocal appearance in the form of sandpaper scratched vomit that can only be hurled by the one and only Sean Ingram of Coalesce.
As good as all that sounds, the album is not without its flaws. Brace yourself, dear music listener, you may not be up for it but Norma Jean has introduced far more melodic vocal passages to their repertoire. That should not shock longtime fans as they’ve used the tact sparingly on their past few records and it has, for the most part, yielded good results. When they try and incorporate it into almost every song on the record, not every melody clicks and some of them fall flat. It’s not for lack of trying, vocalist Cory Brandan is more than capable of both singing and screaming with the best of them. Sometimes when melodic vocals are incorporated into the music with a band like Norma Jean, they are something that materialized organically and every aspect of the band behind them comes together with a sheer force that grabs the listener’s attention. The stars need to be aligned for all that to work out and there are instances where some of the arrangements seem out of place. The decision to tune the guitars down also hinders some tracks a bit. When Norma Jean break into their heavy moments on tracks such as the opener, “I. The Planet” and the song that follows, “”Everyone Talking Over Everyone”, it gives off a nu metal feel. Make no mistake, it sounds more like a metallic hardcore band playing Roots-era Sepultura with nu metal elements than a bunch of baggy pants, Adidas-wearing yahoos jumping up and down to a bouncy groove. These moments are thankfully spare. They appear momentarily and disappear almost just as quickly as they came. They seem to just stick out to the point of distraction.
Polar Similar is a good album that is an interesting addition to Norma Jean’s discography. The bar was set so high with albums like Wrongdoers and Meridonal that trying to meet or exceed the standard of excellence achieved on those records is a tall order and no band is immune to experiencing some drop off. It’s clear they had every intention of trying to top themselves by recording in an isolated cabin in the woods of Minnesota and that’s not lost on me. This is an album that is certain to click with the Deftones fan who enjoys the mellowed out moments of that band’s sound, but also wishes there were some more aggressive moments involved. The recording is outstanding and Norma Jean are meticulous song writers. Their music always seems to have something to hone in on whether it’s in the foreground or the background of a composition. Norma Jean should be commended for trying out some new things and they are talented enough to take what they’ve done here, fine tune it and continue producing the quality output they’ve been known for over the course of their career.