All hail the Almighty Norma Jean! Continuing to x-ray their souls to offer hardcore evidence of their collective spirit, the quintet surges through the grunge on their latest, Deathrattle Sing For Me, which arrives on Friday, August 12, 2022, thanks to Solid State Records.
When we last heard from the beloved Post-Hardcore/Metalcore/Whatever ‘Core outfit, in 2019, they were paying homage to their fans with All Hail. A daring representation of the quintet, it was peppered with self-reflection, psychological quandaries, and a plethora of heartfelt emotions—and fans would expect nothing less. In fact, the Grammy Award-nominated Norma Jean, formed in 1997, has spent the past 25 years exploring every nuance of heavy. From their 2002 debut, Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, to 2006’s Redeemer, 2010’s Meridional, 2016’s Polar Similar, and everything in between and after, these Georgians have made an exceptional name for themselves that has allowed them to be christened “the almighty.”
So, what is an omnipotent songwriting factory to do when the world shutdowns? Flex their creative juices, of course. And for their ninth full-length, the exceptional Deathrattle Sing For Me, not a single idea was considered too unorthodox. For Norma Jean—Vocalist Cory Brandan, Guitarists Grayson Stewart and Clay Crenshaw, Bassist Michael Palmquist, and Drummer Matt Marquez—working alongside their honorary sixth member, Brandan’s brother Matthew Putman (who tackles drums, percussion, and songwriting on the album), offered a level of freedom, and the catharsis found in friendship and brotherhood raged strong.
Splitting their recording sessions between Florida and Arkansas, with longtime collaborator Jeremy SH Griffith (Anberlin, Johnny Swim) and Putman at the helm, the men used their collective fire to craft 13 exceptional tracks. Swimming through the murky depths of existence, they captured a haunting beauty that exists within the off-kilter and the muddy, brandishing a scalpel for a self-autopsy that defies as well as embraces their very essence.
Though the melancholic depths of Deathrattle Sing For Me are shadowed by past glory yet heartbroken for the present, it is not just another Norma Jean record. Instead, it’s a piece of art that will take some time to embrace, one that exploits its razor edges and cacophonous layers while wearing some admittedly obvious influences. Born of its creators’ appreciation for the likes of Deftones, Helmet, Alice in Chains’ Dirt (1992), White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 (1992), and The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream (1993), it is a record that easily straddles two spheres, refusing to conform to either.
Finding no need to rush it, Norma Jean takes their time to build anticipation before exploring “1994.” A requiem for the past, the song’s assault is a gnarled slap to the senses that is apt to confuse and excite in equal measure. It’s experimentation with extremes, a theme that continues throughout the entirety of Deathrattle Sing For Me. It shows its face in tracks such as “Aria Obscura” or “Memorial Hoard,” the latter being a dawdling transformative that bows to its forebears. Continually reincarnating itself, the 5-minute track embodies a collection that sees a battle-worn outfit finding new ways to express themselves.
Sure, there are songs that feel representative of where Norma Jean has already been, musically speaking—“Any%,” “W W A V V E,” and “A Killing Word”—but the album is never wholly defined by one moment. From the artistic lunacy and digitized mayhem of “Call For The Blood” to the psychedelic pinches of “Parallela,” this is a collection that never conforms. Instead, we are offered everything from the multi-headed hydra of “Penny Margs” to the insatiable “Spearmint Revolt,” which gives the album its name.
Rounded out by the jumbled transmissions of interlude “el-roi,” thunderous melody of “Sleep Explosion,” and the eight-minute-long emotional monster “Heartache,” its a collection of songs that culminates in an ethereal bath from the heavens, one meant to cleanse the soul and allow the listener to begin anew. And, as with the majority of Norma Jean’s material, everything is open for personal interpretation. While one listener might experience the mighty riffs of brotherhood, another is apt to remember their high school flannel collection. Catharsis, however, is not optional.
This far along in their career, the fact that Norma Jean, or any band, is willing to write new material that diverts as far from their norm as the first half of “Penny Margs” is refreshing. Deathrattle Sing For Me is better for this abandon, allowing the material to travel further and to scale such great heights, all as it joyfully disobeys boundaries. Which, if there must be one, is the caveat of the album: it is going to take multiple sessions to fully grasp and appreciate its contents. What might initially seem a bit jarring in its brazen outlandishness blossoms organically into a picture of what it means to accept the seemingly unacceptable. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Norma Jean’s latest 5 out of 5 stars.