You could ask ten different people what the word "metalcore" means nowadays and you'd get at least nine different answers. The genre has been a hotbed of shifting boundaries and experimentation for over two decades that have left some bands behind and catapulted others into the limelight. Norma Jean falls squarely into the latter camp. Change is a concept that's practically been internalized by the band, given their Ship of Theseus-style changelog of members. But like the fabled ship, the name and the spirit remain, even if all the boards have been replaced with ones made of much newer material.
The fact that the members have spent less time on average together than nearly any other iteration of the band shows the sheer hard work that has gone into making Deathrattle Sing For Me work as well as it does. This ninth full-length effort from them might lack much of the hardcore punk and noise metal elements that personified 2002's debut Bless The Martyr And Kiss The Child, but what those aspects have been replaced by – a definite sense of overall polish being the most obvious – has slotted in like they were always there to begin with.
Opener "1994" dials up the weird immediately, discordant banging and rattling that demands that the listener sits up and pays attention. This is the part of the album that feels like the newest version of Norma Jean; "Call For The Blood" uses a sinister tone to follow up the lead track nicely, but it feels like this is as close to mainstream as the band dare to get sound-wise, while the slow descent into madness of "Spearmint Revolt," replete with blown-out speaker fuzz and feedback, is offset with striking clean vocals. "Aria Obscura" is practically soft-spoken in places with its opening sitar sample and slow, clean build-up before it hits a traditional grungy breakdown.
From this point, the old beast rears its head. "Any%" is a ferocious medley of punishing vocal barrage and hefty, dueling guitars that kick things into a higher gear from note one and sets the bar high for "W W A V V E" to follow. It's a certifiable highlight of proceedings, the crushing guitar kicking off gnarly breakdowns that invoke the heaviest moments of the band's past. That whole past meets present sub-theme comes to a head in "A Killing Word," a glorious mix of the relentless old and stylish new that hits you in the face over and over with the best of both worlds.
Gripes? Not many. "el-roi" is a little filler-y; while it's always nice to have this sort of introspective pseudo-break to give us a chance to appreciate the heaviness, it comes in too little too late to have an impact. Any thought of it is blown away by gloomy closer "Heartache," however, a nearly ten-minute sweeping epic that lays the album to rest in grand ceremonial fashion.
Deathrattle Sing For Me at its best is some of the best Norma Jean we've heard and I don't use that praise lightly. That this comes in what is essentially an ongoing period of change that hasn't ended, with a nearly entirely new roster of bandmates, should add some weight to the statement. It won't please the purists so much and there are parts of the album that might have benefited from something a bit rawer and more savage, but if this is the direction their evolution is taking then we're in for more treats like this.