Norma Jean has changed a lot in their 16 years as a band. They’ve made lineup changes. They’ve changed labels, they’ve changed names. But the one thing that is always overshadowed by these revisions is their change in sound. Many people can argue that the band hasn’t changed much throughout their career. Their brand of metalcore has always been laced with hardcore influences, spiced up by tons of fleshed-out lyrical elements and bouncy instrumental sections. But Norma Jean demonstrates with their new album, Wrongdoers, that while change is an inevitable thing and typically a positive enhancement to a band’s career, refinement or progression shouldn’t be calculated, nor should it be attempted. It should just happen.
“We kind of feel like the songs write themselves, and we’re just the tools behind them. We don’t force a song to be a certain way. If something’s coming out naturally, we kind of let it happen, then let it sit and see if any other ideas come out. It’s a very natural writing process I guess you could say,” said vocalist Cory Brandan.
One of the biggest differences between the band’s previous record and Wrongdoers is the swapping in-and-out of three members. Bassist Jake Schultz, longtime guitarist Scottie Henry and drummer Chris Raines left, while guitarist Jeff Hickey, bassist John Finnegan, and drummer Clayton “Goose” Holyoak entered. This makes guitarist Chris John Day the only original member remaining. While this destroys many bands, Norma Jean has been able to stand strong, and that’s because the combined efforts of the five current members make for a holistic and, more or less, imperatively organic approach.
“We took our time and truly got the right people. They bring an entire new energy into the band. Even the little stuff – our new drummer “Goose” and our new bassist John were in a band together before. So they have this great chemistry together. To bring that kind of energy to the band – just something as small as that – changes so much for the band in very cool ways,” Brandan explained.
Another reason that the band has succeeded with their new material is because of their writing process – one that allows for exceptional creativity, but also helps cut and paste material effectively and efficiently.
For two-and-a-half years, the members – like many bands – wrote at home separately, often sending ideas between each other. But instead of compiling all the material at once, they planned out blocks of time in between tours to discuss ideas, work with already-written songs, and to make edits and changes whenever necessary. According to Brandan, this procedure is productive, as “the ideas can come and go and you can make all the changes you can without feeling rushed.”
To think the revitalized writing approach would change Norma Jean’s overall aesthetic would be an incorrect assumption. Although the album has a different identity than the rest of the group’s catalogue, it has chunks of all of their material combined in the mix. The chaos of Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child shines through in “If You Got It at Five, You Got It at Fifty”. The Southern influence captured in O God the Aftermath’s inner workings and cell constructions is present in the booming melodies of “The Lash Whistled Like a Singing Wind”.
Sure, the metalcore outfit’s heavy-as-balls roots shine through as always, but something else is also present: a knack for self-identification. More or less, Norma Jean is representing the human experiences well; they’re progressing, maturing, and opening their eyes in new ways every day.
Brandan said of the band’s progressions, “Even on The Anti-Mother, you can hear those Norma Jean roots. They’re always going to be there. There’s definitely a lot of the second record, too. It’s a lot less adolescent-sounding, you could say. We didn’t know what was going on when we were young. That’s what anybody that’s ever been in this band will say. [Wrongdoers] is a different progression of all of that.”
As far as the conceptual personality is concerned, Brandan finds himself working with the same motivations that have fueled the band’s progressions. He’s struggled with love, he’s struggled with change, and through all of his inhibitions, he’s found growth through admittance, followed by the assurance that he can better himself.
Brandan explains this vividly in “Sword In Mouth, Fire Eyes”, where he writes of loveless enterprise and static exchange. He says of the track, “It’s from a quote that says, ‘We all want progress. Sometimes progress means we’re looking down the wrong road. The first person to do an about-turn and walk away is the most progressive.’ That’s just about looking at yourself, and even when you’re looking at the wrong road you could be walking towards the right one. You’re progressive in that sense.”
This is also the intersection point – where the idea of ‘wrongdoers’ comes into full formation.
“The title we felt is one anyone can relate to, one anyone can understand easily. Through that we were kind of trying to find a word, too, that brings everyone together in kind of the same group, or same pool. It’s kind of hard to do, really, and it kind of happened with the word “wrongdoers” unexpectedly,” Brandan said. “A lot of the record kind of deals with the judgmental attitudes that we have. I think what Wrongdoers is really saying is that no one’s perfect. There’s no room for judgment for anyone from another person. That’s kind of what we were going for. It’s just kind of a positive thing, like how we’re all in the same boat, we all have that in common.”
For Wrongdoers, Norma Jean has written songs of love. These songs may not exactly be the textbook definition of ‘love songs’ as they’ve come to be known, but they depict love in its many forms. The title track is dark and brooding as Brandan spits out words that in a metaphorical way are lust-ridden: “We make love to the same mistakes.” On the other hand, “Triffids” revokes the idea of fear and injects convicted compassion inside its lines (“Worry is no form of treatment”).
The versatility of this theme gives a heavy weight to the record’s 11 songs; it’s fitting with the band’s rich, bulky guitars and monstrous metallic melodies. Plus, Brandan finds this idea to be equivalent to life processes: creation, struggle, reformation. He said, “God wants us to show love to people. I think love takes so many different forms, and God is trying to show us that and we need to try to understand that more. It takes a lot of sacrifice and putting ourselves down, and when it really comes down to it, taking on yourself, looking in the mirror and seeing what’s wrong with you is the hardest thing to do.”
The frontman finds this element of human existence to be something “every single person on the planet struggles with,” even himself. Luckily for Brandan and the rest of the band, the passion brought forth in Wrongdoers provides evidence that Norma Jean is fast to work their way down a new road – one that acknowledges missteps, but one that is full of renewal and reactivation at the same time. It’s the perfect retrospection on the band’s past and present works.
Wrongdoers‘ overall motif is an extremely explicit one of love and change – both expressed in the lyrics and, more unconsciously, through the highly momentous, dynamic and yet interiorly comforting instrumentation. But at the same time, there is a dense complexity to everything the frontman writes and everything the band puts together. Luckily, this open-endedness makes the record come off as ultimately relatable, and because of that, it may end up having a timeless impact.
“If one person looks at a painting and someone else looks at a painting, they might see something different. They might get something different out of it. Music is the same way, lyrics are the same way. It’s all art. That’s really the goal of this band. That’s what we always keep in mind – the intention of all of that, and never forgetting that.”