Review Summary: Make it loud.
Norma Jean are aging in reverse. All their contemporaries have either broken up or moved onto milquetoast radio rock in an attempt to get a cut of that Bring Me the Horizon cash cow. Norma Jean, though, just hum along like a well-oiled engine. Cory Brandan's vocals seem to get gnarlier with every release, finding new ways to unleash that tortured sing-scream that's been so essential to the band incorporating melody into brutality. If this is Jeff Hickey's last album on guitar then he went out on top, with absolutely delicious guitar tones and fretwork bringing some math influence, a terrific sidestep from Polar Similar
's bluesier licks. Every song is structured like it could be the band's last statement, throwing in everything and the kitchen sink: time signature switches, disgustingly heavy breakdowns, oases of calm with stadium-filling melodies inside the gauntlets of punishment.
They're so locked in as a unit they can write a killer song in their sleep, which admittedly, can become something of a crutch. All Hail
is thankfully more stylistically distinct than its predecessor, which really just threw Meridional
in a blender and hoped for the best. But "[Mind Over Mind]" and "Trace Levels of Dystopia" are Norma Jean operating at the baseline, talented enough to put out good music on autopilot but not pushing the envelope in any particular direction. This is partly why Wrongdoers
is their best achievement – Norma Jean took their sound and stretched it out both ways like elastic, perfecting both the long doomy mood piece and short furious blasts of hardcore punk adrenaline. Closing out the decade the band was left with a choice; keep doubling down on these styles until they tapped that well dry – see: "Death is a Living Partner", "The Nexus" - or try something new.
takes up the challenge of sequencing every sound Norma Jean have tried out – from Redeemer
on, before you freak about the lack of Bless the Martyr...
here – into one complete package. For the most part, I can't fault a thing. The record's back half is absolutely incredible, with the earth-shattering breakdown on "Translational" leveling the playing field for the band to get wild. "Careen" is the big showy setpiece, building from an unnerving ambient soundscape to a punishing post-metal banger in five minutes and change, but closing out the album Norma Jean elect for something closer to the heart. "Anna" is a surprisingly emotional epic written while the band was reeling from the death of a fan; Cory's vocals, inherently dripping with emotion anyway, are put to some of their best use ever as he rips his way across the track. The solemn transition into the Opethian acoustic "The Mirror and the Second Veil" really sells the feeling of a whole different kind of closer, a fantastic new sound for the band to work in the future.
That's All Hail
's major innovation, but it's hard to be upset when they mix past iterations of their sound into the picture so well. "Orphan Twin" toggles between cleans and harshes as effortlessly as ever, only missing out classic status for its frustratingly short runtime. "/with_errors" and "If [Loss] Then [Leader]" resurrect the massive hooks of The Anti Mother
in a better framework, while "Safety Last" and "Landslide Defeater" take it as a goal to up the band's already respectable bar for crushing breakdowns. ("Landslide Defeater" gets points for tactical deployment of a fucking hunting knife for a pickslide, but for my money "The Anthem of the Angry Brides" retains that crown).
This is far from Norma Jean's conclusive statement on ambition or innovation, but as a capstone to an era which began with Meridional
, All Hail
feels oddly appropriate. It's never been easy to predict where this band will go next; it could be that Hickey's departure and the new decade induce another sea change to keep things fresh, or they just keep pumping out terrific metalcore every three years until the genre catches up and takes some pointers. For a band that's outlasted more than one complete rotation in membership, twenty years of grind and the lure of drifting away into the ranks of metalcore's disappointing nostalgia acts, it's hard to imagine any choice being the wrong one.