Review Summary: I am the lamb that has become the wolf.
Norma Jean is a rare animal. It isn't every day we get to witness a band at the top of their game seven albums into their careers, and especially when said band doesn't hold a single original member to their name. To quote one Ryan Corcoran, "how does a band's 7th album end up being their best? doesnt make any sense but whatever". With as expansive and divisive a discography as Norma Jean's, this seemed like just another throwaway comment in a sea of hype and blind adoration. Fortunately, this is undoubtedly their strongest release yet, pairing the all-killer-no-filler attitude of Wrongdoers
with the conceptual energy of earlier releases. While the ongoing narrative throughout the album seems a little contrived at times, this is some of the most addictive and heavy stuff the band has ever written.
My expectations for this album were dropped significantly upon viewing the accompanying documentary, LUMINÆRIES
; a documentary loaded with convoluted monologue and timid promotion. Any doubts were sufficiently shattered upon hearing opening track "I. The Planet", however, which features one of the heaviest breakdowns the band has ever written. It isn't nearly as complex as the opener for the last record, "Hive Minds", but it is arguably just as impacting due to its flawless execution. Boasting some aggressively dark lyrics (any song that opens with "I hope you burn" is certain to turn some heads), the track is a perfect introduction to "Everyone Talking over Everyone Else", the strongest track on the first half of Polar Similar
. Loaded with rampant riffery and a destructive vocal performance, the song showcases Norma Jean as a band at their collective peak. Pushing technicality into the forefront, the brief follow-up track "Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda" puts a stronger emphasis on the band's hardcore sounds from their earlier discography. The book-ending riffs are rapid and heavy, making for a perfect pit track. This aggression is matched later on in "Death Is a Living Partner", which houses one of the most frenetic drum performances on the record.
It isn't explicitly clear whether or not the songs contained within the four narrative tracks on the album, "I. The Planet", "II. The People", "III. The Nebula", and "IV. The Nexus", are meant to share specific themes, but from a sonic perspective, there are some definitive tonal shifts happening throughout. The three songs contained within "I. The Planet" pair sheer weight with addictive melody, while "II. The People" consists of more aggressive extremes. While "Death Is a Living Partner" is a rapid explosion of technical performance, "Synthetic Sun" is a mid-paced banger focused more on creating an atmosphere than adhering to addictive attributes seen during the first tracks of the album. "Reaction" pushes the band into progressive territory, sounding more like a sludge-fueled Tool tribute than a typical Norma Jean track. It is definitely the most complex collection of songs on the album which is unfortunate because the lyrics are without a doubt the most blatant. For a band who has prided themselves on writing thought-provoking lyrics with their last two releases, it is frustrating to see them leave so little to the imagination when discussing such expansive topics.
While Norma Jean have never been shy of experimentation with their sound, "III. The Nebula" marks a turning point in Polar Similar
in that every track following could have been written by a different band. Hardcore, metalcore, sludge, stoner metal, southern influence, it is all here. While that might just sound like a description of the band's sound in general, each individual style is given time to shine. It is undoubtedly the most entertaining segment of the record, with the band refusing to sit in one place for too long. What is most impressive is the fact that it works. Each of the four closing songs are fantastic in their own rights, with the last two standing out as highlights on the record. "A Thousand Years a Minute" is a strong contender as the strongest track on Polar Similar
, with closer "IV. The Nexus" serving as a closing epic surpassing the 10-minute mark. While the progression isn't quite as enticing or explosive as the closer for Wrongdoers
, it does a good job tying any loose ends. Ending with only 30 seconds of noise rather than 7 minutes is a big plus, too.
Where previous releases from the band focused more on a central sound, with all experimentation linking to one or two themes, Polar Similar
constantly evolves. Thus, the band have a considerable amount more room to not only develop a story, but push their personal limits as songwriters and musicians. It is absurd to think this is Norma Jean's seventh release; nothing here is indicative of a band who are running out of ideas. Riffs don't feel recycled. The drumming isn't stale or repetitive. Cory's refinement as a vocalist hasn't compromised raw release. With all these facets included, there is no denying this is a Norma Jean record. It isn't an expected progression for the band, and that is fantastic. The dip in quality towards the middle of the record might just be an unfortunate by-product of having to compete with over a decade's worth of material. Nonetheless, when Polar Similar
is firing from all sides, it is a force to be reckoned with. A pinnacle of a career, and one of the most exciting releases of 2016.