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Friday, August 22, 2008

CD Review: Norma Jean - The Anti-Mother

Norma Jean - The Anti-Mother
2008 Solid State
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

When talking about Norma Jean, I can never resist telling the story of when I did a round robin of interviews at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC with Unearth, Atreyu and Norma Jean. One of the most memorable days in my music journalism pursuits, I recall Travis Miguel of Atreyu being congenial and laid back on a mostly quiet tour bus, while the Unearth bus was much rowdier in comparison. My chat with former Unearth drummer Mike Justian was more like a rap session about drummers and old school underground heroes of hardcore such as Nuclear Assault, Bad Brains and the Cro Mags. I also recall us sitting in on an in-progress interview with Trevor Phipps, who patiently fielded yeoman questions from a young pair of doe-eyed rooks. The other guys of Unearth jokingly threatened to steal my Beatles shirt off of my back and they obliged me with a beer during my stay. There's a reason Unearth is so danged popular.

Let's then have a look at the openers of this crushing bill of a few years back, Norma Jean. Contrast to their bus-comfy hosts, Norma Jean were still rooks themselves, pushing along in a gray tin can and ratchety hitch rig, and I mean pushing. Wedging ourselves into a private corner of the club during equipment set-up, guitarist Scottie Henry took the point of our chat and I could see the brother was shagged and downright ill. Ditto for the rest of the band, who all looked like they'd just escaped Saruman's tower and forgot to grab the ring on their way out. Henry informed me the band was all sharing a nasty fever due to an unforgiving winter and a consequential icy van. Mentioning that Norma Jean only had so much money as new kids on the touring circuit, they were sharing a box of cold medicine, but you could tell it must've been some cheap store brand that did nothing to help their cause. Still, Henry gave me a game interview, and soon vocalist Cory Brandon and guitarist Chris Day joined in. We were at it for almost half an hour (even chatting about a mutual fondness for Cracker Barrel) and eventually I had to just let them go so the poor guys could get ready for the show, though I had no idea how they could muster up the necessary oomph, looking as dead on their feet as the Norma Jean crew did.

They say you only get so much room to make an impression these days, and if anyone in this metal revival scene has made an impression not only on myself, but metal fans at-large, it's Norma Jean. That night I watched one of the most gallant performances I've ever seen as Norma Jean dug deep inside themselves and put on an electric set that both Unearth and Atreyu had to not only reach but surpass. Running amuck on the stage with almost equal fury and attention-stealing chaos as Dilinger Escape Plan, the Norma Jean guys set the pace and showed the most heart I've seen of anyone in the modern age. Perhaps it's because I knew they were so sick that I was wowed as much as I was, and surely, there's a thousand bands with the same ethic and soul as to push themselves beyond their tolerance, but you could tell that night how bad Norma Jean wanted it.

At the time, Norma Jean was touring in support of their blistering screechfest O God, the Aftermath. Somewhere after vocalist Josh Scogin left Norma Jean to form The Chariot, the band evolved from their debut album Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child all the way to an about-face in theory with their astonishing Redeemer album of 2006. Maybe the change of guard on the mike from Scogin to Brandan had a delayed adverse effect or maybe it was the punishment they'd inflicted upon themselves trying to build their reps, because the Norma Jean that recorded Redeemer was a far different entity.

In 2008 Norma Jean finds themselves in the spot they busted their asses so hard to achieve, in the headliner's spot on the road, and now with their latest album The Anti-Mother, we can altogether forget the era of O God, the Aftermath, one that found Norma Jean crowded with similar time-signature-crazy units like Fear Before the March of Flames, Quell and The Number Twelve Looks Like You, along with the jacked-up form's innovators, Dillinger Escape Plan. While Dillinger and distant cousins (songwriting-wise) Every Time I Die have opted out of their wacky 'core schisms and evolved into vibrant overlords of expressionistic metal, Norma Jean takes cue on The Anti-Mother, albeit to less subtle measures.

In some ways, The Anti-Mother is Norma Jean's darkest album. There's something inherently brutal and ugly to the overall bluntness extorted from the band, even when they squeeze out a bipolar melodic opening like the one greeting "Discipline Your Daughters." The ploy is not far off in theory to Quicksand or Helmet as the song grows more intense with each bar, yet never failing to maintain the basic plea eeked from Cory Brandon's whelps.

Bringing up Helmet, none other than Page Hamilton joins the Norma Jean guys with vocal and guitar contributions on the step-heavy "Opposite of Left and Wrong" and assuredly his guitar brushes are felt all over the track in sonic sweeps that makes the song one of The Anti-Mother's best. Almost by attrition Norma Jean assumes a monster mentality to their album by Hamilton's cameo, as well as the Deftones' Chino Moreno on what will likely be The Anti-Mother's signature track "Robots 3 Humans 0." As with Hamilton, Norma Jean postures themselves to Moreno's guidance, in the process coughing up the album's most tuneful cut. The pace of "Robots 3 Humans 0" is basic compared to the overt disorder and confusion of Norma Jean's earlier work, which means these guys sense their growing popularity in the scene and the time is now or never to make a statement. Without a doubt, the smartly-written "Robots 3 Humans 0" achieves that for these guys. We should also note that Moreno has had quite the effect upon Cory Brandan and even the whole band, if "Surrender Your Sons..." isn't an obvious indicator.

Songs like "Self Employed Chemist" and "Murphy Was An Optimist" are other examples of Norma Jean's extension beyond the manic technicality of O God, the Aftermath, the way these songs seek avenues of groove within their boisterous infrastructures. If anything, Norma Jean is gradually becoming more and more accessible with each album, though they do mean to gouge your ears out on "Vipers, Snakes and Actors," "Death of the Anti-Mother" and the long-distance closing track "And There Will Be a Swarm of Hornets."

Perhaps the inherent clamor to knock themselves silly is starting to work itself out of Norma Jean's blood, but if anybody's paid their dues, it's these guys. If they want to settle down into more focused rock drives beneath their brusque aggression, hardly anyone's going to stop them, especially if they knew how far Norma Jean has come in getting to this point...

Rating: ****


DPTH International said...

I liked Norma Jeans early work on "Bless The Matyr ..." which I feel is an important hardcore/metalcore album as it was something a little different then what I had heard to that point.

I'll have to revisit "Redeemer" and "O God, The Aftermath" to get a better impression since I have a feeling they're albums that grow on you. I am looking forward to hearing this new one though.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

I think I favor Redeemer over them all; that one was so about-face and a brave shift in theory, plus is rocks without selling out; NJ probably had no choice but to search around for a sound tweak, since the advent of screamo jacked up around the time of O God the Aftermath

Johnsongdls said...

I think I favor Redeemer over them all; that one was so about-face and a brave shift in theory, plus is rocks without selling out; NJ probably had no choice but to search around for a sound tweak, since the advent of screamo jacked up around the time of O God the Aftermath