Sound — 9
They've had a hard and turbulent career playing hard and turbulent metal, but after 16 years Norma Jean may be about to hit their finest form. 2010's "Meridional" was a pleasingly solid effort for a band who have proven themselves capable of both exquisite innovation and remarkable flatness. Fast forward three years and, with changes on guitar, bass and drums, things don't quite look the same. We don't know if new album "Wrongdoers" will be of the same quality. Don't worry though; you'll be pretty certain once you've listened to it. "Wrongdoers" is very, very heavy. And it's exciting. Their semi-chaotic, riff based and vocally adventurous metalcore possesses the crucial mean streak absent from so much post-Killswitch metalcore. Dirty and discordant, the new lineup is brimming with ideas and ready to float a new one at any moment. How it separates itself from its contemporaries and predecessors, however, is with its pace. The album is in perpetual motion, but guitarists Jeff Hickey and Cory Putman navigate potholes and avoid burnout by knowing exactly when to cut an idea loose. Take "Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes," which eschews its initial sludginess for a melodic, vocal-driven tack which exploits the slower grooves with more nuance. The belief and conviction of frontmen like Cory Brandan does wonders for authenticity in metalcore, and he puts in a great shift here. Without the inimitable grit of a performance from the heart, the constant left turns of "Funeral Singer" and harsh protrusions of "The Potter Has No Hands" would leave little impression. It's a snag that the band have been caught on in the past, but "Wrongdoers" has no such issues.
Lyrics — 8
One thing to match the band's sharp, lucid riffing (most of the time) is their lyrical ability. Received wisdom lands them in the metalcore bargain bin for some - that misconception is almost entirely based on their Christian lyrics. The words may be uncool, depending on where you place the yardstick, but they are impassioned. The drip-drip of haughty language and smartly twisted syntax adds an air of unpredictability on the page and reinforces it on record.
Overall Impression — 8
"Meridional" was a typical return to form type of record, complete with new sense of purpose and a change of label. Returns to form are none too impressive when they're not sustained, however. "Wrongdoers" doesn't just sustain Norma Jean's form from three years ago, though - it improves it. This is the best album of their career, and deserves comparison to the likes of Every Time I Die and Converge, trailblazers who have lit up an aging scene in the last few years. A surprise entry on the shortlist for heavy album of the year.