From the crunching, devastating tone of the first track, “I. The Planet,” it’s obvious that Atlanta-based metal heavyweights Norma Jean is far from done with their career. Bands with a 14-year badge may be thinking about retiring or moving on, but Norma Jean has taken their due time with their releases — waiting three years between each of their last three full-length albums — and the time between has instead fostered maturity and growth, producing a beast of an album in Polar Similar.
The reason for this may lie in the band’s belief in anti-stagnation, a culture of experimental expansion. In 2008, the band’s fourth full-length album, The Anti-Mother, came with a flavor of indie in the mix. The ensuing albums returned to the heavy, but, ever since then, they’ve retained that fearlessness of experimentation and fostered it as a skill, creating the cornerstone sound heard on the band’s most recent two albums. It’s a slow move away from the deliberately chaotic nature so notably associated with their early years. In fact, 2010’s Meridional and 2013’s Wrongdoers made for two of the band’s best album debuts, simultaneously bringing them onto two U.S. Billboard charts you might not expect: Hard Rock (No. 6 for Meridional and No. 3 for Wrongdoers) and Independent (No. 8 for Wrongdoers). While chart position isn’t the be-all-end-all, the band’s conscious efforts were being recognized at the highest levels. This is not to say there’s an absence of havoc within their music now or that they’ve abandoned their roots; this is The Almighty Norma Jean we’re talking about, well known for their riotous tendencies — and they haven’t abandoned the home in which they grew up. They just build upon it.
Polar Similar feels like the perfect compliment to end the trilogy of albums from the past six years, seamlessly flowing between groove metal, crazy breakdowns, and droning guitars. Couple that with vocalist Cory Brandan’s jump between thrashing vocals and more melodic harmonies (the first single, “1,000,000 Watts,” is a perfect example) and you’ve got a perfect cross-section of the last half decade’s worth of Norma Jean music. Back on Solid State Records — the band returned to their original label after releasing two albums with major label Razor and Tie — it’s a refreshing reminder of where they came from with a nod to where they’re going.
Deep power chords and a grinding nature abound (see “Synthetic Sun”) and dueling guitars meet intricate songwriting (see “Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else”) making this one of the most intense Norma Jean records released. Echoes of The Anti-Mother appear on the stellar “An Ocean of War,” and the epic finale of “IV. The Nexus” will hearken back to the opening track of Wrongdoers, “Hive Minds.” At over ten minutes, it’s a masterpiece of a closer that weaves their history and their modern direction into one tour de force.
The album features interludes along the way; they’re strategically placed to give the album breathing room between the intensity of each track. A few of them linger a bit more than they might need to, but that’s more a reflection of their evolution in experimentation. “II. The People” is haunting and atmospheric with a creepy phone message layered over the tape before Brandan cuts in: “Ready,” he says, as the onslaught of guitars and thrash of “Death is a Living Partner” blasts through. The track is the most reminiscent of early Norma Jean than anything else, and at 2 minutes 18 seconds, it’s doesn’t overstay its welcome and leaves you wanting more.
Each time Norma Jean releases another record, the band has gotten better. The band’s albums build on their predecessors, and that’s certainly the case for Polar Similar: Overall, this should be considered for their best work yet.