By: Geoff Topley
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Released on September 9, 2016 via Solid State Records
Polar Similar, the seventh album from Atlanta metallers Norma Jean, is my first encounter with the band. An advance apology to fans of the band with knowledge, but you have to start somewhere and I’m glad I’ve finally caught up with them. I knew of their existence from a recent show they played over here with our very own 7.5 Tonnes of Beard as support (albeit they had to withdraw). First thing that struck me about them is their name, an acknowledgement to Marilyn Monroe’s real name, not exactly representative of the music they play. When you the band creating all manner of mayhem in front of giant lit-up Norma Jean backdrops, it is truly a stunning sight.
Let’s establish something from the off, like Dillinger Escape Plan (who I previously reviewed under similar circumstances), this is not my usual listening and puts me as far out of my comfort zone as I can go. Even giving the album the necessary listens was difficult as I find I need to be in a certain mood to indulge in the cacophonous noise created. But listen closely to Polar Similar and you’ll hear little snippets of melody permeate through the brutal force and twisted riffs. Underneath the furious bluster and shit kicking drums from Clayton “Goose” Holyoak, guitarist Jeff Hickey ably creates some sumptuous textures and sounds.
Star of the show “Goose” gets things off to a hectic start with the splattering snares of ‘I. The Planet’, but pay attention as those beats are intensely intricate and of a time signature unrecognised by these ears. Hickey’s guitars crank up a fuzzy drone, the drums drop out and before you know it, you’re dragged into the full-on Norma Jean assault when vocalist Cory Brandan Putman spits out the venomous words over a humongous wall of guitars. Boasting a killer chorus and eventually some Van Halen-esque keyboards, the track is a perfect introduction to the band and the reason I decided to divulge in taking on this review.
In ‘Everyone Talking over Everyone Else’, guitars fly about like escaping gases, the tempo constantly shifting, drums getting a lead role and with only the occasional flicker of melody, I struggle to grasp everything that’s going on. ‘Forever Hurtling towards Andromeda’ presents me with a similar dilemma, the mathematical content in favour of melody overriding the urge for repeat plays. The two minute blizzard of colliding riffs that constitutes ‘Death is a Living Partner’ isn’t a particularly strong track for me either for its lack of hook.
But album highlight ‘1,000,000 Watts’ features a slow grinding and slippery groove with a creepy melody and multiple hooks. The undertow of guitars spider out, but are hidden under the propulsion of metallic riffs. As with Dillinger Escape Plan, it feels at times as if the band are all playing a different tune such is the complexity of the riffs and timing. For a fleeting moment, there is subsidence in the onslaught with the haunting interlude that is ‘II. The People’. A cut and paste telephonist interjects with random numbers and it’s actually quite unsettling.
A warning alarm guitar sound reaches over a smash-up of riffs, this is lead track ‘Synthetic Sun’ and Goose once again sounds like he’s having a (wrecking) ball with an astounding percussive show. Other album highlight ‘Reaction’ dabs the full palette of guitar sounds over an insistent buzz of a bassline that showcases Norma Jean’s ability to combine insane metallic carnage with melody and moments of tenderness. The lead guitar lines are truly stunning and wander off like ticker tape being flung from the edge of cliff.
The Ry Cooder-through-a-busted-amp cowboy slide guitar interlude that is ‘III. The Nebula’ sounds hideously out of place but is a welcome oasis in the harsh desert storm of Polar Similar. If Fugazi had displayed more metallic tendencies, the result would surely have been ‘The Close and Discontent’, which features a head nodding riff that an old fart like me can actually keep up with. One of the biggest hooks on the album comes in one of the chorus’s (there appear to be two) of ‘An Ocean of War’, a choppy track that crams more into its three minutes than seems physically possible.
There’s a hint of Deftones in the languid and rolling breakdown sections of ‘A Thousand Years a Minute’, the allowance of non-metallic influences adding to the music with dramatic effect. Final track ‘IV. The Nexus’ takes this ideology one step further over a sprawling ten minute soundscape. After a delicate elongated intro, the mid-section hits bloody and hard before the track ebbs and flows into post metal waters. I’d even go as far as to say there’s a nod to Godspeed with the final two minutes of ethereal textures and random samples. An outstanding end to an album bursting with energy, vitality and ultimately, brutality.
So I come away from Polar Similar with the intention of delving a little more into the band’s back catalogue, possibly even going as far as to adding them to the list of must-see bands. In all honesty, I can’t comment on where this album sits in terms of previous output, but if extending the fan base was part of the intention, they’ve succeeded in getting a plus one. This album had the same impact on me as the last Dillinger Escape Plan album, I was aware of the band and blown away by the sheer force and extremity of sounds within. If you haven’t given Norma Jean some of your time, this appears to be a good place to begin.