Review Summary: Might be time for the band to hang it up and go live the dreaded "normal" life
There are two basic ways to gauge how you feel about a record. Firstly, you can take an objective approach and analyze the record in terms of its compositional sophistication, nuance, originality, ingenuity, etc. Secondly, you can simply take note of the strong gut reaction that the music pulls out of you. Of course, both approaches are usually employed by those who write music reviews. But the fact is, objective opinion and subjective opinion can often be at odds with one another.
For example, I objectively recognize that Botch is (arguably) the best progressive metal core band of all time ("progressive metal core" not exactly being a scientific term). However, the music of Norma Jean is significantly more potent and visceral for me than the music of Botch. There's no way to really know why that is the case. It's one of those mysterious things that are beyond all reasoning and logic. If you ask me who is a better band, I will say it is Botch. If you ask me who I like more, I will say Norma Jean, hands down.
This, of course, makes me significantly less "hip" than most metal and hardcore fans. For some inexplicable reason, Norma Jean has received a lot of flak from the metal "elite". I've never understood how people can lump this band in with artists like From Autumn to Ashes (who are not all that bad, just nothing to shout about). There is nothing commercial about Norma Jean other than the fact that they make good music. Their music is not at all formulaic and is full of unorthodox rhythms and brain bashing sonic textures. Just because they employ a lot of breakdowns does not mean they are "for the kids".
Now on to "Meridonial", the band's 5th offering. Like all Norma Jean albums, this record takes a different approach than all previous works. Of course, this statement must be taken in context, as a non-metal listener would likely find all of this band's material interchangeable. But those who are unstable enough to listen to a lot of this type of music can see great significance in relatively incremental changes from album to album.
The album combines different elements from the previous four. It employs the feverish pummel of "Bless the Martyr", the ragged lurch of "Oh God" and the emphatic drive of "Redeemer" and "The Anti-Mother". In addition, the band is now employing a more lithe technicality that spins and plunges with a new, more seamless subtlety. There is also a new approach to melody in some songs. A song like "Falling from the Sky" makes use of regal, soaring melodies that are a new element for the band. However, this brings up a significant gripe I have with the record. This new melodic approach is only present in the second half of the album. I really wish they had incorporated it throughout the entire record.
Unfortunately, the disappointment does not end there. I have listened to the album about six times and for the first time, I am underwhelmed by a Norma Jean album. The first three songs are pretty good (particularly "Deathbed Atheist") but the album hits a big lag from track 4 to track 7. They are ok tracks (aside from the annoying ambient track), but they just don't really do much for me. For the first time, the band seems to be going through the motions rather than working with genuine inspiration. Things pick up from track 8 on, with the aforementioned new melodic approach, but still, none of the tracks transcend the tag "good". I hate to say it, but it seems like Norma Jean might be running out of steam. That shouldn't be very surprising actually. How many metal core bands can you list that have produced more than 4 great albums?
I can't think of any.