Ask most serious bands about the recording process, and if they don’t compare it to giving birth, they’ll likely tell you that making an album is akin to psychotherapy. But let’s be real here: How many of those bands actually take the album-as-therapy idea literally? For Atlanta quintet Norma Jean, who for all intents and purposes should be some of the most content dudes in underground music right now, the recording sessions for their third album, Redeemer, packed group therapy, boot camp and endurance test into one gnarly package.
Produced by Ross Robinson (At The Drive-in, From First To Last, Sepultura), Redeemer is at once the heaviest and most personal album in this band’s arsenal—and that’s saying something: With their 2002 Solid State Records debut, Bless The Martyr And Kiss The Child, Norma Jean established themselves as one of the noisiest and most adventurous young bands in metal today. With the 2005 follow-up, O’ God, The Aftermath, drummer Daniel Davison, bassist Jake Schultz, and guitarists Chris Day and Scottie Henry welcomed new vocalist and Arkansas native Cory Brandan to their lineup and took their artful, technical noise to the proverbial next level, earning critical acclaim and a 2006 Grammy nomination (for Asterik Studios’ awe-inspiring artwork) in the process, and embarking on a grueling tour schedule that most recently found them on Ozzfest 2006’s second stage. And now, with a new, expanded edition of Aftermath in stores, the obvious question follows: When you still have past glories to coast on, why make a new album at all?
“Basically, we had too much material brewing inside us, and we wanted to get it out,” says Davison, laughing. “We probably could’ve waited to record until after we cut back on what we had, but when the opportunity to work with Ross came up, it just felt like, ‘Man, being in the studio with this guy is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 12 years old; I’m gonna do anything I can to make this happen now.”
After practicing, in Davison’s recollection, “pretty much ever day, for about 50 days solid,” and going through rigorous pre-production at home in Atlanta, the band decamped with Robinson to Radio Star Studios in the tiny mountain town of Weed, California, to start work on Redeemer. Though some of the songs were still works-in-progress (as Brandan’s recalls it, “Songs were changing up until 20 minutes before we tracked them”) the lyrics, again written collaboratively by Brandan, Henry and Davison, really took shape once the band got into the studio.
“We’d rehearse a song till we felt we had it worked out, and then we’d bring in Ross and sit down for another hour or two just to discuss it,” Brandan says. “He had us all in there as a group, talking about each song—what the lyrics were about, where they came from, what the song meant to us personally and spiritually. It was really intense; so much stuff came out during those sessions, and in the end, it was really unifying for us as a band.”
While rehearsals took place in a beautiful, open-stage environment inside the studio, tracking itself was another story—all part of the intense process that would eventually shape the songs. “I tracked my drums under the stage,” Davison remembers, laughing. “We’d get done talking about the song, and then we’d head down below the stage into, like, this little dungeon. It was really small, and the drums were set up with mikes all over them; there were hot water pipes, ventilation, everywhere—it was really intense. We could barely stand up because the ceiling was so low, but Ross was there the whole time, coaching us and keeping us in that mindset.”
Just one listen to Redeemer confirms the ferocity of the band’s performances. From the discordant breakdowns and jarring time changes of “The End Of All Things Will Be Televised” to the newfound melodic intensity of “Blueprints For Future Homes,” the album packs some of Norma Jean’s most unhinged, soul-baring playing into the span of 11 songs. And though the weird angles and difficult guitar figures that comprised Aftermath are still prevalent, that album’s refined, very-much-studio feel has given way to raw atmospheres in which you can practically see the sweat running onto the instruments. Brandan, who’s already proved himself a formidable vocalist, fully comes into his own on Redeemer with a style that veers between unhinged screaming and down-on-his-knees melodic belting.
As has been the case with Norma Jean’s previous albums, fans will interpret Redeemer’s title in a number of ways: There’s the obvious (it’s their shortest album title ever); the semi-obvious (the band members are Christian; the album’s called Redeemer—you follow?); and the not-so-obvious (look up “Redeemer” in Webster’s Dictionary for even more possibilities). All of these, says Davison, are valid readings, but as before, it’s better just to listen to the whole album before settling on an opinion about what it all means.
“We just wanted a title that was short and simple, but also really powerful,” Davison explains. “‘Redeemer’ was the most powerful word we could think of, and obviously, for us, being a spiritual band, it takes on special meaning.” Brandan agrees. “We didn’t call it Redeemer and then try to make the lyrics work around that [idea],” he says. “There’s some really personal stuff on this record, and even though I’m seeing in hindsight that the title ties into some of that, I’ve always thought it’s best just to let people come up with their own ideas about the songs, rather than say, ‘This is our concept; this is what the record’s about.”
No matter how you interpret it, one thing’s for sure: Slide it into your player, and you will feel Redeemer more than any other Norma Jean album. Emotional, spiritual, visceral, physical—this isn’t just the third album Norma Jean wanted to make; it’s the career-defining statement they had to.