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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Complete History of Norma Jean

Throwing Myself (as Luti-Kriss) -- 6/10
Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child -- 10/10
Oh God, the Aftermath -- 9/10
Redeemer -- 9/10
The Anti-Mother -- 9/10
Meridional --7/10
Wrongdoers -- 10/10

In 1997, some kids started a band with a really silly name. There was someone already going by the name Ludacris in Georgia (and Luti-Kriss, besides being a horrible name, was too close to that), so the band changed their name to Norma Jean. Before that, though, they actually did release an album.

It's called Throwing Myself (2001/Solid State Records), and it is just okay. It reveals a young metalcore band ("metalcore" being a genre that combines elements of heavy metal and hardcore), full of energy, but not many ideas. The vocalist, constantly screaming Josh Scogin, shows a lot of promise, though at times his voice is too awash in digital distortion. Still, Throwing Myself's got a cool vibe, and despite the repetitiveness, it's pretty listenable. About this time, Luti-Kriss begins gaining a national reputation for an insane live show. This is mostly due to the antics of Scogin, who is known to climb to the top of whatever venue the band are playing in, crawl under the stage, or just charge straight off into the crowd and disappear at the first note. I saw the band around this time, and I can vouch for all three activities. At this point, the entertainment value of the hijinks outweighs that of the music, which is a sort of constant, sludgy, sonic headbutt.

That all changed when the band evolved into Norma Jean. I DJ'd at the local college station at this time, and I remember receiving the promo for Norma Jean's "debut," Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child (2002/Solid State Records). I placed the CD into my car stereo not expecting anything more than some fun, heavy music, but an hour later, I felt like I had just listened to the best heavy album I had heard that year. In the place of noisy musical gibberish were vast, expansive, cavernous songs, full of ghosts. How did this band come so far in only a year? Here is an album that defies categorization. Scogin, no longer employing digital distortion, has a scream thicker than a thousand Janet Lee's, going from deep bellowing to high-shrieks in the same second. The song-writing is brilliant, full of such a meticulously ordered diversity of tempo, texture, and emotion. The production, done without the aid of computers, sounds so full, with the drums in particular sounding deep and resonant. For a debut, this was unbelievably good, so naturally, Scogin left the band immediately after it was released to start a new one, and the bassist also left for good measure. The band replaced Scogin with a very Millennial-looking waif called Brad Norris. No knock against Norris, but I wanted a beast to front this band, not an emo elf who looked like he could be knocked over by a stiff breeze. I saw a guy wearing a Norma Jean t-shirt at the movies in late 2004, and I told him I liked his shirt. We talked for a moment and he said, "Man, you should see the new frontman. They got rid of that skinny little dude (ed note. I don't know the true circumstances of Norris' departure, but it seemed amicable). The new guy is a monster. It's awesome." Well, that was all I needed to hear. I was back on team Norma Jean.

Looking back, the band's 2004 decision to go with fellow Gen X'er, Cory Brandan Putman, and not some emo Millennial with a $400 haircut as their vocalist is what kept me with the band, and has kept me with them all these years. Putman and his "get off my lawn, punks" perspective has elevated him near the top of my favorite front-man lists, and is a key reason that I make Underoath jokes all the time instead of Norma Jean ones. He brought a well-earned maturity to Norma Jean, and his constant presence has held it together over the years as most original members have jumped ship, But on March 1, 2005, I wasn't altogether pleased with Putman.O God, The Aftermath (2005/Solid State Records) sounds nothing like I wanted it to sound because I wanted it to sound exactly like Bless the Martyr and Kiss the ChildOGTA has none of BTMKTC's immense space or booming production. It is instead a trebly, constant battle against churning water. The drowning Hookman, which (beginning with OGTA) became the band's logo, perfectly represents it. It took me three years to fully appreciate Oh God, The Aftermath. After I bought a vinyl boxset of the band's first three records, and gave the album a fresh-eared listen, everything clicked into place. Certain critics accused Norma Jean of ripping off certain other bands for this release, but a close listen reveals that Norma Jean are simply giving their own spin on a certain musical idea: sharp, cutting, heavily distorted but reverb-free power chords, underscored by a dissonant lead guitar. At times, the guitars suddenly come together, or fall out into something more harmonious, such as on nine-minute album centerpiece, "Disconnecktie." Speaking of which, I understand that technically, there's no such thing as "Christian Music," and when I was making my own music, I certainly wasn't calling it "Instrumental Christian Rock," but if an actual combination of musical notes can be "Christian," the hope in the instrumental bridge of "Disconnecktie" is it.

While Oh God, the Aftermath took three years to grow on me, I faced no such issue with Norma Jean's third official album, Redeemer (2006/Solid State Records).  Redeemer producer, Ross Robinson, brings Norma Jean back to the basics, and really pulls out the unique sensibilities Brandan Putman brings to the band. Putman had a few singing parts on OGTA, not high-pitched Underoath-esque singing, but gritty, mid-range screaming with melody injected into it. Putman does the same on about a third of Redeemer's songs (amidst his usual screaming), but Robinson helps Putman refine these parts a bit more, Robinson also helps to bring bass back to Norma Jean's sound, as the drums and bass guitar are much deeper and richer in the mix. Recorded during a period where it sounds that the band are comfortable in their skin and looking to have a good time, Redeemer holds its place as the most fun album in Norma Jean's catalog, The band's mud-caked liner-note photo, and the slow-dance clap of "Cemetery Like a Stage," which conjures a "Thriller"-esque visual, give testament to this.

The Anti Mother (2008/Solid State Records) then, is the most difficult album in Norma Jean's catalog. The band had such a great experience with Ross Robinson, they brought him back to produce for a second time. This outing, Robinson brings Norma Jean into some stranger directions. On top of that, the band announced that the album was about an idea called the titular "Anti Mother," anything that looks beautiful on the outside, but is ugly on the inside. I did not notice this concept at all in the album's lyrics, instead finding them strangely dark, violent, and paranoid. Unfortunately, I could not connect with The Anti Mother on any level. However, about a year later, I read an interview (since deleted, I assume, out of respect for Putman's ex-wife) which revealed that The Anti Mother was actually about Putman's bitter divorce and struggle to get sole custody of his two children. My own ten-year marriage has had its ups and downs, and when I read this interview, the entire album clicked into place for me, both lyrically and musically. Not only could I understand Putman's point-of-view, but also the reason the band had adopted a more simple, sludgy, bludgeoning sound, as it better backs Putman's desperate vocals. Putman sings far more here than ever before, blending his singing and screaming together at a higher level. Overall, this album is extremely emotionally heavy, and perhaps the greatest divorce record heavy music has ever produced.

Going completely against tradition, I had neither a strong negative, nor positive reaction to Meridional (2010/Razor and Tie), Norma Jean's fifth album. It isn't great, it isn't bad, it is just okay. The band, to me, sound like they are just going through the motions here. Six years later, on re-listen, I still can't summon much emotional reaction to it. The artwork is awesome, the first three songs get me jazzed, but then the rest of the album just kind of happens. Nothing stands out much. Maybe one day it will catch on with me. To me, Meridional just sounds like an overly polished Anti Mother without any of the Sturm und Drang...

which is strange, because Norma Jean followed it up with what I believe might be their best album to date, Wrongdoers (2013/Razor and Tie). By this point, the band have bled all but one original member, guitarist Chris Day, and the lineup for Wrongdoers consists of Day, Putman, and three newcomers. Rather serendipitously, this injection of new blood comes just as Putman seems to be fully realizing his capabilities, and what he wants to do with Norma Jean, which has at this point been his band for nearly a decade. Wrongdoers reminds me of Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, not necessarily musically, but more because it is an excellent musical vision, perfectly executed. Like Bless the Martyr, Wrongdoers contains tons of space, but unlike that classic album, it also contains a perfect combination of harsh and melodic vocals, utilized at the perfect times. Musically, the new lineup, anchored by band grandpa Day, is full of energy, like a rocket taking off. Brandan Putman, who has contributed musically since his inception with the band, seems to be the guiding hand over the entire proceeding, and an incredible proceeding it is. The album's diverse emotions and tones progress naturally from beginning to earth- rumbling end, as the band unleash a fourteen-minute closer which devolves from a brilliant, apocalyptic epic, to a sludgy, stoner-rock riff that seems to drag rock off the surface of the moon.

Now the band prepares their latest release, Polar Similar (2016/Solid State Records). I await with anticipation.

Photo by David Jackson

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