Norma Jean have been putting out awesome singles for the better part of 2019. Beginning with the awesome Polar Similar b-side “Children of the Dead” all the way back in January, followed by a steady stream of outstanding singles since mid-July, the band have been busy putting their competitors to shame, with every new piece of the puzzle suggesting they were building to something big. That something is now here, in the form of the Georgian outfit’s eighth full-length offering All Hail—an album that, for the most part, delivers on its tremendous promise.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the chaotic hardcore/mathcore scene has been the most consistent of any subgenre. As one of the popularises of the sound, Norma Jean are no exception. Despite the band having essentially become a loose collective of musicians, rotating around frontman Cory Brandan—who has been the band’s only consistent member since 2005’s O’ God the Aftermath—Norma Jean’s output has been strikingly consistent and often outstanding. Like their peers in The Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge and (especially) Every Time I Die, Norma Jean only seem to get better with age, with their previous effort, Polar Similar (2016), not only representing the apex of their career, but also (I’d argue) one of the standout albums of the decade. The Norma Jean of 2019 are a far cry from the Norma Jean of almost two decades ago, who produced the revered debut Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child (2002). Along with being literally an entire different outfit, the band have continually added progressive and often post-metal textures to their sound, so that their music has often become as much of a “mood” piece as a destructive force. So where do you go once you’ve pushed your sound to its conceivable limit, while consistently one-upping a truly superlative career along the way? Rather than risk pushing your sound beyond breaking point, the answer—if you’re Norma Jean—is to simply double down on everything that’s worked before. All Hail is very much a tonal continuation from Polar Similar, while also being the most volatile record they’ve released since Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child. As with most of Norma Jean’s records (and also all the best ones), All Hail is united by a narrative theme, if not an entirely coherent narrative concept. This is the first time, however, the theme is represented more in the music than the lyrics. Although Polar Similar’s apocalyptic soundscapes and the ethereal textures of Meridional (2010) helped accentuate their lyrical concepts, the illusory, Lynchian nightmare of All Hail is best reflected in its alternately explosive and retractile compositions.
All Hail is centred around the band’s definitive “push and pull” aesthetic.The majority of the record feels like being caught in a black sea; being continually drawn in by a persistent, forceful undertow only to be dumped on by the most colossal of waves as the tension repetitively reaches breaking point. “Orphan Twin” begins the record with a massive build-up which erupts into a jilted, snakey riff as Brandan screams “I am the crushed right hand!” Though essentially a rehash of “I. The Planet” from Polar Similar, its darker palette lends it an ominous effect not at all dissimilar to Meshuggah‘s “I Am Colossus”, except that rather than testing the limits of the listener’s aural hospitality, it’s all over as soon as it begins.”[Mind over Mind]” dredges along with a punishing, hypnotic bounce, too big to escape, so that it simply has to be surrendered to. “Safety Last” draws you in with with a dragging, lumbering riff before intermittently assaulting them with pummeling drum breaks reminiscent of the more punishing moments of Carbomb‘s Mordial (2019), with the cycles syncing up so that the two elements finally unite in its climactic, colossal beatdown. The awesomely named “Landslide Defeater” is perhaps the most traditional of all the album’s offering, beginning a fairly straight-ahead hardcore fashion and even drawing the listener in with a subdued, “clean” section that sounds like something off the last couple of Architects records before a gunshot sound ushers in the musical equivalent of a tactical nuke—it’d be cliché if it weren’t so satisfying and masterfully deployed. The less openly volatile “Full Circle in Under a Minute” and “/with_errors” allow some respite, although both remain pugnacious throughout, thanks to their rhythm section’s pounding foundation. The latter track feels like the most direct continuation of the post/progressive development shown on Polar Similar and Norma Jean’s other more-recent records, and is also perhaps All Hail’s most immediately memorable offering, due to its more melodic vocals. Listeners will have been well and truly put through the ringer by the time the album’s first half climaxes in the crushing open chords of “Trace Levels of Dystopia” (again with the fantastic song-titles!). It’s a forceful display, perfectly captured by Will Putney‘s pristine production, one which goes a long way toward establishing All Hail as one of the standout releases of 2019.
The second half is less convincing. It’s definitely not bad. Not at all. Far, far from it. However, “Trace Levels of Dystopia” feel like such a natural ending point for the record that what comes after feels out of place and inessential. It doesn’t help matters that the remaining tracks are all considerably more subdued than those that preceded them. The push and pull is still there, but it’s often linear elongated—as with the slow burn of both “Translational” and “If [Loss] Then [Leader]”. Whereas “Volunteer Tooth Filing” provided a suitably creepy interlude during the first half, “Extra Dimensional Palate Cleanser” comes across as an ill-fitting attempt to recreate “II. The People” from Polar Similar. “Careen” is the kind of song I wish Underoath were still putting out, but it feels underwhelming coming after the lofty heights of the album’s earlier offerings. “Anna” is the only track from All Hail‘s latter half that stands up to its earlier material. The sullen song—written about a fan and friend of the band who “passed away unexpectedly”. It’s an excellent meditation on the regret and anger that comes along with such a loss and it’s climactic, defiant cry of “All Hail!” is worth sticking around for. Unfortunately, the track’s impact is largely undermined by “The Mirror and the Second Veil”, which adds a further two minutes of acoustic guitar to that heard in “Anna’s” fade-out. (It’s possible that this is the real-life Anna heard on the outro—given Brandan’s statement that she “loved … guitar” and the similar acoustic’s heard at the end of “Anna” itself, which would be a fitting tribute which I hesitate to criticise. Brandan does not address the song in his “Track by Track” breakdown of the album and, if that is the case, including it as a semi-hidden track with more of a break between might have helped smooth over the progression somewhat.) The ill-fitting feeling that pervades All Hail’s back half, doesn’t undo the masterful showing of its first. It does undercut it, however.
Restricting All Hail to it’s first eight tracks, along with “Anna” would perhaps have made it a less dynamic. However, it also would have made for a more concise and complete listen. It’s still one of the best albums of 2019 and is likely to grow more convincing with time, as all of Norma Jean’s previous records have before it. Nevertheless, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s an even better record trapped inside, trying valiantly to fight its way out.
All Hail is out now, through Solid State Records.