Sound — 8
Making their first mark a significant one, Norma Jean turned heads with their aggressive, Adam Dutkiewicz-produced mathcore debut album, "Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child," which still maintains its seminal value in 21st-century metal today. With that being nearly 15 years ago, Norma Jean have since navigated through a sizable discography by taking a timely turn into emocore in 2006's "Redeemer" and 2008's "The Anti Mother" (around the time when frontman Cory Brandan's vocal style began to shadow that of Thrice's Dustin Kensrue), and after signing to Razor & Tie Records to release their fifth album, 2010's "Meridional," the band hit a new level, fusing the new melodic post-hardcore style they were tending to with the techier nature of their early material, as well as adding in some new post-rock interludes to increase the dynamic value.
Following that up with the more headstrong hardcore effort of their sixth album, 2013's "Wrongdoers," Norma Jean return to their original label home of Solid State Records for their seventh album, "Polar Similar." While that upfront aggression is still doled out with aplomb in the no-frills metalcore of "I. The Planet," and the chaotic energy of "Death Is a Living Partner," Norma Jean venture back to the full-bodied formula heard in "Meridional," and the album provides more melodies in "Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda," "1,000,000 Watts" and "A Thousand Years a Minute" (reminiscent of their emocore days) as well as more tricky technical riffing in "Everyone Talking Over Everyone Else" and "An Ocean of War" (reminiscent of the early days).
And per this appeal to the compositional recipe of "Meridional," plenty of moments in "Polar Similar" fan out in different styles. Some of these moments are par-for-the-course formula for Norma Jean, like the eerie ambient interlude of "II. The People," the 10 Years-brand alt-metal cut of "Reaction" (which kicks into a nice grind later on), or the lengthy post-hardcore/post-metal ender "IV. The Nexus." But with plenty of new songwriting characteristics thrown in - whether it's the increase of murmuring vocals similar to that used in Gojira's newest album, the hint of doom metal injected into "1,000,000 Watts," the classic metal vibe of the main riff in "The Close and the Discontent," or the pure dose of blues soloing in the interlude of "III. The World" - "Polar Similar" shows the band flaunting even more tricks in their repertoire.
Lyrics — 8
Similarly revolving around Brandan's lyrical theme of the frailty of human existence that has appeared in previous Norma Jean albums, his lyrics in "Polar Similar" oscillate between finality by way of shallow pride and a changing of doomed fate by reshaping one's outlook and approach to life. Regarding the former, Brandan welcomes obliteration in whatever sense all in the sake of being vindicated in "I. The World" ("I hope you burn / I'll be the king of the ashes") and "1,000,000 Watts" ("But you're broken, I'm the answer baby / And I will never have the final say / They will never have the final say").
But with Brandan showing more admonishment than anger in the frustration towards selfishness in "Reaction" ("Be careful of what you leave behind"), this bridges over into Brandan's other lyrical half of the album, acting more like the canary in the mine chirping about the impending destruction the world is headed towards, urging to take the reins and change that course as soon as possible, heard in "Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda" ("When you're trying to save it / Then you will have to try harder") and "IV. The Nexus" ("I don't wanna be inside / While the walls are closing in / If you wanna make this all work / Then you're gonna have to try"). And though he still articulates this with biting criticism ("You're not thinking it through at all / Like you never saw this coming" in "An Ocean of War"), Brandan shows himself turning the other cheek regarding the previously mentioned interest of violent vindication in "A Thousand Years a Minute" ("I should really go backwards like you do / If I wanted to stone you, but again / I don't want to be like you").
Overall Impression — 8
Having nailed a successful amalgam of their catalog's varied hardcore styles on their fifth record, it's no surprise that Norma Jean reapply that recipe in "Polar Similar" for another multi-faceted offering. But though the base of the new album molds itself similarly to "Meridional," Norma Jean make "Polar Similar" more than an echo of previous success by bringing forth new ideas from their songwriting toolkit, proving that they've got more ways to refine and grow upon that golden formula of theirs.