Most bands tend to follow a career trajectory defined by inflamed youth and a process of slowing down and/or mellowing out as they get older. However, while it’s especially true in heavy music, some premier acts the genres of post-hardcore and metalcore have done a fairly good job of avoiding this trap, including The Devil Wears Prada, August Burns Red, and Every Time I Die. It’s not always easy to crank out a solid record every two-to-three years and tour constantly on top of that. Norma Jean knows that, considering they’ve had to replace every original member over their decade-plus of existence. Yet, it hasn’t fazed them. In fact, the band’s past the point of climbing treacherous mountains in the scene, and now they just prefer to move them.
Sometimes that’s just what age and experience do to a battle-hardened assortment of musicians. When that magic comes together and the creative juices are flowing to a certain degree, it can result in an album as good as Polar Similar. And before you keep reading, yes, it is better than 2013’s Wrongdoers.
Norma Jean has now put out their two best releases in their sixth and seventh efforts. It’s an incredible feat since frontman Cory Brandan is the only current member who played on 2010’s Meridional. The follow-up to Wrongdoers, Polar Similar is every bit the banger, with some added tightness, experimentation, and overall ghastliness making it arguably the best metal album released so far this year. There’s a good chance it won’t be surpassed either. Imagine what it would take for a group to match the guitar-drum fury of “Everyone Talking Over Anyone Else” or the cavernous breakdown in “1,000,000 Watts”. The 50-minute expanse of hardcore, metalcore, hard rock, industrial, and sludge is powerful enough to run a city. With that being the case, I’m surprised it’s not being considered as an alternative energy source yet.
The two songs previously mentioned are the biggest standouts — and for good reason. In vintage Norma Jean style, “1,000,000 Watts” features Brandan’s gruff screams in front of an onslaught of destructive guitars and drum smashes. A few tweaks are noticeable, too. The addition of rhythm guitarist Phillip Farris adds a new dynamic to the band’s sound, and the shift showcases a metallic rumble while still maintaining the same speed and prowess. In addition, hints of dark-toned feedback and ambience — and the fourth track’s piano outro specifically — plague the album with a sense of uneasiness. It’s hard to sit still when “Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else” comes on either. Never has the unit sounded so deranged, sometimes even hinting at Converge as the musicians back Brandan with their twists and turns.
From the time opener “I. The Planet” crashes, listeners know they’re on a train that’s going off the rails. Grimy guitars flood the scene, and the line “What you’re feeling is the loneliness of God” matches the slow-burning soundscapes with a combined sense of desperation and awe. “Forever Hurtling Toward Andromeda” and “Death Is a Living Partner” are quintessential fast tracks, offsetting the opener by changing pace just enough to keep things interesting. “The Close and Discontent” follows up the second interlude’s Southern rock technique with the same Georgian groove topping its hardcore underbelly, while “Synthetic Sun” fiddles with background monologues and high-pitched guitar leads. The album ends with “IV. Nexus”, a 10-minute conglomeration of overwhelming aura and a surplus of variety. Moving between fast and slow, heavy and soft, and reckless and composed, the closer points to past efforts as well as fellow metal players Underoath.
Still, all elements considered, it’s quite obvious that this is the most definitive Norma Jean has ever sounded. Polar Similar isn’t an album that needs to beg for your attention, and that’s because it doesn’t need to. Instead, combining all their talents into a mass so large it has its own gravitational pull, the group opts for a ruthless delivery. Its range in playing styles, tweaks here and there, and its ability to hang darkness in both the broad strokes and the details, makes it one of 2016’s most impressive full-lengths. They’ve been called one of 2000s metalcore’s highest and mightiest acts, but Norma Jean has never been higher or mightier than they are on Polar Similar.
Metalcore/Hardcore | Solid State Records