Nostalgia is a powerful force indeed. Nostalgia is a huge draw in modern media, and for me there are still plenty of bands that I listen to mostly because of nostalgia. This doesn’t mean that they have no merit outside of “I used to like them when I was younger” but the thing about nostalgia is that sometimes it slaps a big old pair of rose colored glasses on your face, and we tend to overlook faults in the name of the warm, fuzzy feeling we get, especially as our favorite bands get older. Norma Jean is a band that is very nostalgic for me, but Deathrattle Sing For Me is definitely not an exercise in nostalgia.
My high school listening experience was dominated heavily by metalcore. Sure, I had the classics like Metallica and Black Sabbath to keep me company, and it was also when I started to get into more extreme stuff like Children of Bodom and Dimmu Borgir, but metalcore, and specifically the Christian Metalcore of the early 2000’s, was my lifeblood. In as much, Norma Jean’s first three albums were a huge part of what I listened to on the bus to school, during class when I was supposed to be paying attention, on the car ride home, laying in my room, and back on the bus to do it all over again. There was always something that stood out for me about Norma Jean, something that separated them from the rest of the shiny, polished and mainstreamed bands of their ilk like Underoath and The Devil Wears Prada: they were neither shiny, nor polished nor mainstreamed. Their riffs kicked up a lot more dirt and grime. Their style was, as I remember, self-described as “Sloppy Southern,” and they just had (and still have) a lot more outside-the-box tendencies than their contemporaries. It’s these traits that have allowed them to age with just a little bit more grace than the rest of the crew they were associated with (although the new Underoath record is actually pretty entertaining) and on Deathrattle Sing For Me, the sextet leans into these tendencies harder than they ever have before. Deathrattle is an album that is emotionally and sonically suffocating and dense, featuring the crushing riffs and thunderous breakdowns the band is known for, but even more loose and experimental, with influences taken from classic 90’s albums like Dirt, Siamese Dream and maybe perplexingly La Sexorcisto. The biggest of these is actually the latter, as Deathrattle features an enormous number of samples, cutting between and around beefy riffs and roaring vocals. Some of the songs even feature an upwards of 200 individual tracks, so one has to prepare themselves for some sensory overload upon putting this album on.
Norma Jean is a band that are known for their riffs, and in this regard, they deliver exactly what everyone wants from them. Good god, the main riff on “Spearmind Revolt” alone is enough to sell me on this album, and between that and the two songs that precede it there are enough spin-kick worthy guitar lines to make the perpetual 16-year-old who lives in my brain happy forever. But that’s what everybody knows about Norma Jean; what’s extremely interesting about Deathrattle is what they do differently, which is punish and oppress the listener with sonic density. Maybe unsurprisingly, this is an album that is extremely emotional, and it runs the full gamut of what the last couple of years have been like. Says singer Cory Brandan, “…we wrote these songs for our own souls. The record was necessary to keep me alive in a very literal sense. It’s a deeper place.” There are a lot of deep emotions on display here, but not all of them are crushingly heavy. “Aria Obscura” and the cinematic closer “Heartache” both put their 90’s influences on display in full force, with shimmering melodic guitars and plaintive clean vocals taking the stage, at least until the breakdowns and panic chords kick in again. It’s not disjointed, but it is a lot to take in all at once. Fortunately, Brandan has stated that this is an album that is meant to be discovered slowly, in pieces and over repeated listens. My advice is to do just that.
Despite the nostalgia factor for their old material, it seems the best days of Norma Jean are in front of them. Definitely not for any stylistic reasons, but they remind me of Deftones in the way that they have managed to outclass and outlive a lot of other bands that are now looked back on as “cringe” (I’m too old to know if I’m using that term correctly) because of the risks they take and their unwillingness to compromise. Deathrattle Sing For Me is the modern expression of Norma Jean’s sound, and it brings together everything that made them stand out to me in the past with everything they have been doing to keep themselves relevant.