How Nirvana and abusive relationships shaped the new Norma Jean album

Norma Jean
(Image credit: Rachel Putman)

When a band as artistically diverse and progressive as Norma Jean release a new album, it’s always a guessing game of where their music will go next. Since 2002, the Georgia post-hardcore mob have pushed their musical boundaries to breaking point. From the unhinged debut album Bless The Martyr, Kiss The Child all the way through to the more mature and considered Wrongdoers in 2013, theirs has been a fascinating journey.

“We almost need to have long periods of time between each album now,” vocalist Cory Brandan tells us today, “just to make sure we cleanse ourselves of the previous record. We don’t want to have any residue left from that. It’s really important to the sound of the band that we continue to move forward.”

On the surface, you might not think that there is a radical difference between Wrongdoers and new album Polar Similar. The metallic riffs and off-kilter time signatures are still going strong, but there is an added blues element, a bluegrass twang that you may not associate with NJ, and it feels like one cohesive piece of music more than ever. But, essentially, this is typical Norma Jean.”

“We definitely have a sound,” Cory confirms. “You have to make sure you do things in other ways to keep it separate from the rest of your back catalogue. For me the biggest difference and the biggest influence on us for this record was where we recorded it.”

Following Wrongdoers’ touring cycle, Norma Jean set themselves up in the iconic, but now thoroughly underutilised, Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. The place where the likes of Failure, PJ Harvey and Explosions In The Sky have previously called home. But it’s best known for housing Nirvana as they recorded their final album, In Utero.

“I feel like when you know that those records were recorded in that place, this album makes more sense,” Cory says. “There is a very specific sound that comes from the live room in there. You can hear that room in those records, and it’s really cool to us that you can hear that same room on ours. We are joined in some way to all these amazing bands that we grew up loving, and to me that is way more interesting than trying to make something on a computer.”

(Image credit: Jon Esthay)

The bands mentioned previously don’t have much in common with each other, let alone with Norma Jean, but if there is a thread that links their music then you could argue that raw, lyrical honesty is a recurring theme. And Polar Similar follows in their footsteps.

“The title, Polar Similar, the idea was polar opposites. You’ve got these two opposite things, but somewhere they have to meet in the middle. So that idea, that even the most different of things have to find common ground, is the direction that we took this album. I always find it’s best to start with no knowledge of what you’re going to be writing about and see where it takes you, and it took us in some pretty interesting places.

“The song Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else, I guess you guys at Metal Hammer would know that the title is a tribute to Lemmy, but the song is about an abusive relationship. I myself was in an abusive relationship and I’ve never talked about that before. But I’m older now and I’ve got a bit of distance from it. So I felt like it was time for me to use my voice.”

Certainly it’s the first time a band from Norma Jean’s peer group have spoken out about such an issue.

“It’s just about getting out of that relationship, out of this cave that you are stuck in,” Cory continues. “Once you’re in the light you see what you were in. One of the biggest things I saw once I was out of it is that you never realised you were stuck in that kind of relationship. It hits you pretty hard when you come to terms with that. I just wanted to let people, men or women, know that it was perfectly normal to feel like that.”

And, considering the lack of discussion around the subject matter both in and out of the scene, Cory has no problem with any potential backlash or sneering from the metal community.

“I have no loyalty to metal or punk rock,” he shrugs. “I understand this music and where it comes from, but we have never felt like we fit in on either side of the coin. We all like lots of different types of music, and it’s easy to sit there and to sneer at what bands are doing, but we’re well past caring about that now. The pressures of what the scene dictates to us is of no consequence to me.”

Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see, Norma Jean are still pushing that artistic envelope and creating great music in the process.

Polar Similar is out September 9, via Solid State Records.

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Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.