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“I hope you burn/I’ll be the king of the ashes/What you’re feeling is the loneliness of God.”
These are the first words spoken on ‘I. The Planet’, the opening track from ‘Polar Similar’, the seventh (aka ‘Fuck me I’m getting old’) album from metalcore veterans Norma Jean. It’s a lyrical refrain that cuts right to the heart of the record’s overarching themes: abuse, depression, internal versus external, and the cold, inherent darkness of the unknown. You know; all the good bits from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
However, if putting on your reading hat scares you then never fear, because the overwhelming positive of ‘Polar Similar’ comes from the production and just how balls-out, earth-shakingly heavy this album actually is. Produced by the legendary Ross Robinson (who also helmed 2008’s moody ‘The Anti Mother‘) and recorded at Pachyderm Studios (where Nirvana manufactured a little something called ‘In Utero’), the Atlanta quintet was surrounded by snow, woods, and raw, untouched wilderness throughout the entire process. It’s this setting which translates to the records profound sense of desolate isolation, lending itself comfortably to the dark lyrics, layers of reverb and murky, sludge metal depths.
In terms of familiarity, there’s a lot on ‘Polar Similar’ that speaks to the Norma Jean we know and love. Single ‘1,000,000 Watts’ sports barrelling, tribal percussion courtesy of Clayton “Goose” Holyoak, as vocalist Cory Brandan hits maximum croon while crying “We see the shadow of the axe before/It falls on the necks of the sheep.” This use of foreboding lyrical imagery reflects itself on ‘Synthetic Sun’, where the mix of restrained ambience and penetrating melodic leads collides headfirst into Brandan chanting “Ride the horse of Death!” over the caustic dissonance of the track’s mid-section.
Sean Ingram of Coalesce fame even shows up on the pummelling and criminally-short ‘Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda’, with his trademark mid-range bark contrasted perfectly against Brandan’s punctured screams.
However, there are moments where Norma Jean’s seventh album feels like an exercise in homage to their peers. The opening bars of ‘Reaction’ sounds like a B-side of Deftones ‘Gore’, while ‘Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else’ hits like ‘Vheissu’-era Thrice did. There’s also a loose narrative thread interwoven between the instrumental jam tracks like the swamp blues of ‘III. The Nebula’, or the spacey, ethereal reverie of closer ‘IV. The Nexus’. However, ‘II. The People’ is forgettable and downright annoying with an incessant, answering machine loop which feels largely tacked on, and only really serves to unnecessarily extend the run-time and track listing of a great record.
While certainly not a bad record by any objective position, it does feel like Norma Jean are stuck in some form of a holding pattern in terms of sonic exploration on their seventh full-length. While ‘Polar Similar’ contains some truly fantastic songs and bombastic production, it also lacks the unbridled aggression which made releases like ‘O’ God The Aftermath’ or ‘Redeemer’ scene staples and fails to provide the knock-out punch that 2010’s incredible ‘Meridional’ delivered. All in all, ‘Polar Similar’ finds Norma Jean making music without artistic compromise, for no one else but themselves, and in many ways, that’s admirable enough.
1. I. The Planet
2. Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else
3. Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda
4. 1,000,000 Watts
5. II. The People
6. Death is a Living Partner
7. Synthetic Sun
9. III. The Nebula
10. The Close and Discontent
11. An Ocean of War
12. A Thousand Years a Minute
13. IV. The Nexus
‘Polar Similar‘ is out now(!) through Solid State Records.