Few metalcore bands have stayed the course intended for the genre as well as the storied Norma Jean has. The music commonly referred to as "metalcore" has become a commercialized genre riddled with recycled riffs and dull musical moments; very much a "you've heard one, you've heard them all" sort of schtick, perhaps due to the fact that the "metal" part is emphasized by many of these bands.
Norma Jean, on the other hand, has always placed a greater emphasis on the "core" aspects of their sound, following in the footsteps of Botch and crafting a chaotic and unsettling type of sonic assault that is as jagged as it is accessible. It can be argued that along with Converge's Jane Doe (which just celebrated its 15th birthday), Norma Jean's Bless the Martyr, Kiss the Child, which was released just a year later in 2002, was just as essential in shaping the way aggressive music would develop over the next 15 years.
At this point, the closest thing Norma Jean has to a founding member is frontman Cory Brandan, who didn't join the band until 2004, but that said, their sound certainly hasn't suffered for it. In fact, Norma Jean's current lineup appears to be the strongest they've had in years. After releasing their past several records through Razor & Tie, Norma Jean have reunited with their original label, Solid State Records, for the release of their latest crusher, Polar Similar; and what a crusher it is.
Norma Jean really doesn't have a single dud in their catalogue, but Polar Similar could be their best and most ambitious work to date. It's heavy, it's passionate, it's dark, and it even shows a more progressive side of the band not seen before; the stuttering rhythm that opens up the album on "I. The Planet" is but one example of this. Brandan gives perhaps the best performance of his career throughout Polar Similar – whether he's screaming his brains out or singing like a banshee, his impassioned performance carries these songs and makes them hard to forget.
At surface level, Polar Similar is classic Norma Jean through and through, albeit a bit darker than they've been before, both thematically and musically. Straightforward bangers such as "1,000,000 Watts" and "Synthetic Sun" are standard fare for the Atlanta rockers, with, of course, the developed sense of songwriting that comes with being a band for 20 years. They certainly stand out on tracks like these, but it's in their willingness to break outside of their comfort zone and draw from a vast pool of musical influences that Norma Jean really shines on Polar Similar.
A real highlight of the album comes midway through with the track "Reaction." This Deftones-like dirge isn't quite like anything Norma Jean has ever done before, and the main riff and melody of the song are among some of the most memorable of the year. Everything about this song screams power: Brandan's vocals, Goose's frantic drumming, John Finnegan's bass playing, and Jeff Hickey & Phillip Farris' dual attack on guitar. Choosing to follow "Reaction" with the bluegrass-tinged, almost Earth-like "III. The Nebula" makes the track stand out even more, and for some reason, serves as the perfect breather before the album closes out.
The aforementioned progressive qualities of Polar Similar really come to a head with the nearly 11-minute closing track, "IV. The Nexus." The final piece of the four-part suite scattered through the album, "The Nexus" is a very ambitious track for Norma Jean, and one that they're able to pull off with much more grace than some of their contemporaries. The pacing of the song and the way it builds into a classic Norma Jean riff should satisfy fans both new and old of the band, and it doesn't feel overly long either. A bleak melody rears it head in the second half of the track, ending the album on quite a haunting note.
After all's said and done, Polar Similar is the perfect title for an album such as this; it's as much a polar opposite as can be from Norma Jean's past records, but is still a record only Norma Jean could pull off. A definite stand out of 2016.