Death, taxes and Norma Jean. For over 15 years, the metalcore juggernauts have continued to churn out hard-hitting, thought-provoking records influencing countless bands and fans alike.
Proving that nothing can stop the tenacious “almighty” act, the relentless noisemakers, lead by longtime frontman Cory Brandan, have just released their eighth full-length album All Hail.
For longtime Norma Jean supporters, you’re probably well aware of what you’re getting yourself into with the band’s latest 14-track effort – heavy, pit-inducing chaos.
While the uncompromised and out-of-control style should be a given for any Norma Jean release, what you might not have expected was the band’s emotional tear-jerkers “Careen” and “Anna.”
See, for this go-around, Brandan and his bandmates decided to dive deep into their emotional database and translate “emotions into sounds.”
“That was a thing we really experimented with,” says Brandan. “Like the dynamics of ‘What’s this part saying? Let’s write it that way.’ Or if we wrote the [musical] part first, then we [made sure to have] the content behind that to match it. So it becomes a lot less about, ‘Oh, that’s a sick riff.’”
Detailing more about their first new album in three years, Brandan gave The Noise the insight regarding All Hail’s themes, influences and overall writing process. To check out what the outspoken frontman had to say, be sure to check out our in-depth interview below. Afterward, make sure to pick up a copy of Norma Jean’s new album and grab tickets to see the band out on their tour with The Devil Wears Prada and Gideon here.
Can you detail the story being told throughout All Hail regarding certain themes of mirrors and the second veil?
CORY BRANDAN: I write from a visual place. When I’m writing lyrics or whatever, I try to think of something in my mind that I can see. And with any kind of story or theme that we’ve ever done, it’s always come organically. Like, we’re not sitting down thinking, "Hey, this is what we’re going to write about all the time.” I tend to think that as you’re writing a song it’s almost like the song tells you what it’s about in a way. So that mirror theme was really just something that kept popping up a lot. And it’s been cool too during press time right now because a couple of people that I’ve talked to picked that out before we even talked about it. So it’s been really fun and I feel like that theme keeps popping up a little bit. But as far as that goes, it’s really just a visual thing and kind of about the crossroads in life. But I think “crossroads” is a little too app-oriented. This is a lot more “self,” [as in] what’s in front of you and what’s behind you oriented. And the whole second veil stuff, there’s a lot of content on the album that talks about hiding things in plain sight. That in a sense is a veil. You can see through it a little bit but it comes down to discernment and having a foundation to base what’s good and what’s allowed in and what isn’t.
Diving into the first track, “Orphan Twin,” does that pretty much kick off the whole story for the album?
Yeah. The best way to explain that is, the album is in order and it has a flow to it. [“Orphan Twin”] is kind of what I call “fictional reality.” It’s almost like having a revelation about something without – this is the hardest one to explain. And that’s why [the song is] like that, the fictional side of the story. But all you really need to know is that it goes from that fictional side of things into something very real at the end of the album which is “Anna.” Anna is a person that I know. She was a Norma Jean fan. She became a friend to me and my wife. We found out over the years, as we sort of became close with a lot of fans and fans become friends in a way, there are so many inspiring stories that we heard. And Anna passed away last September, the day we were writing the album. So that was the first song we wrote. [The song] was really meant to be inspired by her story and make it real. So we start from this fictional, confused world [with “Orphan Twin”] and “Anna” is something very simple and easy to understand. I think the rest people can kind of fill in the blanks.
Lyrically, there is a lot fans are going to take away from this album. But musically, there’s a lot of diversity to appreciate too with throwback sounding riffs and newer melodic styles. Coming into this album, did you have an idea for what you wanted this record to sound like?
Yeah, I will say too – sorry for stuttering through the storyline – but it really is hard to explain because I don’t want to give too much away and make things didactic, you know? There is a flow to the album, and even in the middle of the album, there’s the song “Translational.” I kind of think that song is meant to be transitional in that you’re almost passing through to the other half of the album. So I think if people keep that in mind, you’ll hear how the record flows with that stuff. So yeah, that falls into the musical question you asked too because we experimented on the last album with intentionally writing track one and the last track and making sure that’s where they went. I think what we found was when we wrote with that intention, we were forced to be a lot more picky about what was going where. We did that on this album too and then we just tried to fill it in all the way through so it would flow. That’s a lot of fun because the musical inspiration is a lot of emotional work. We were basically translating emotions into sounds on this album. That was a thing we really experimented with. Like the dynamics of, “What’s this part saying? Let’s write it that way.” Or if we wrote the [musical] part first, then we [made sure to have] the content behind that to match it. So it becomes a lot less about, “Oh, that’s a sick riff.” But at the end of the day, it still needs to be that. It still needs to be fun and be a fun album to listen to. It’s still rock and roll. But yeah, the throwback thing… it’s not as much of a throwback as much as it’s just we love that stuff too. Those are some of the most fun songs to play so we’re all going to try and keep something in that vein for the old school.
Talking about trying to put emotions into music, do you think that speaks volumes as to how your songwriting has grown over the years?
Oh totally, yeah. That’s such a good question because it’s really hard – when we finish an album, we come out and we kind of say, "Well, what are we going to do now?” And then it’s like, “Okay, cool. See you guys in three years when we write the next one.” So we always try to find something that we can try different. It really is just a lot of experimenting because it’s like, we’re still just friends in a room trying to play music just like when we were starting out. So finding things like that just helps us challenge ourselves. We’ve done something like that on every album or a few things where we’re like, “Let’s try this, this and this on this album and see how it goes.” Worst case, we don’t like it and we stop experimenting with that. But if we figure something out, we’ll have that ammo for the next album and we’ll be better at it because we just spent a whole album trying to figure out how that works. So with this album, that was something we dove into and it was really hard to do because it makes the songs real. It makes things feel different. And sometimes it makes things hard to do because you don’t want to be too vulnerable or too exposed. So that’s kind of a place where we found ourselves in writing these songs as they became a lot more important. Especially songs like “Anna.” It’s like, it’s not just a dedication to a person because that’s a nice thing to do. It became almost too real because we loved that person and it made that song harder to write because it was never going to be good enough. Eventually, we just had to let go of the song. And the mirror theme of that is we kind of felt like we had to let go of her too and that really hit me pretty hard that day. I almost wanted to delete the song. I was like, “I don’t think it’s good enough.” It was really just about kind of letting the song go and not abandoning it but saying you’re done.
What do you think it’s going to be like when you play that song live for the first time?
I’m gonna bawl my eyes out. I am. There are a couple other songs on the album that are like that too. And there’s a lot of fan-inspired stories and that’s where the “All Hail” thing comes from. There’s so much fan inspiration on this album, and it was their thing to do the “All Hail” and “Almighty” thing which is just like a fun nickname type of thing so we just adopted it. And that was a really fun aspect to say, you know, “for you by you.” It also sounds cool [laughs]. But yeah, there are a few other little stories that have blown our minds over the years and I found myself telling them a lot as we were writing the album. And with a couple of them, you see the look on someone’s face like, “What!?” and I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess I didn’t realize how actually crazy that is.” I’ve heard quite a few of them. And man, there’s a whole existential rabbit hole that Norma Jean went through making All Hail and it hurt sometimes. But now, I’m like, “Thank God for this time [after the record]” because now we can get out of that place and be in a more positive environment with things about the album and not be so on the emotional spectrum.
Talking about the writing and recording for All Hail, do you guys usually write collectively in the same room together?
We write separately. It’s really like a lot of segmented ideas. So what we’ll do is we’ll do the first block of writing. We’ll get in the room and just show ideas like, “Here’s an idea, here’s a riff” and just kind of see what pops out. If anything just gets us going and we’re like, “Oh, I have an idea that would work with that” or if it just made me want to like headbang or something, we’ll say, “Okay, that’s getting used. We’re going to do something with that.” Then we’ll do like phone recordings too. Sometimes we’ll put mics everywhere and just push the record button and smash a part out really quick just to remember it. Then if we get something going, we’ll just keep going on it. But if we come to a place where we don’t know what to do next, we just stop instead of trying to force the song out. So yeah, it starts to be written collectively at that point. But it’s also probably a couple of years of everyone writing on their own.
With Norma Jean having a large collection of members over the years, how did that impact the writing for this record? And who was involved this time around?
There are two sides to it. There’s that mirror again. There’s one side where you have to be honest with yourself and say, “Okay, there’s one new person in the room right now that we’re not used to writing with” which was on this album [Grayson Stewart, guitarist]. There was one new guy that hadn’t been a part of the collective before. And you have to say like, “It is a fact that if you build chemistry with someone writing-wise and then that person leaves and someone comes in, you have to start over in doing that.” Unless you just have instant chemistry with that person, which is possible. The other side of it is that there’s like a breath of fresh air because that person is so excited to be there. And we [sometimes] get in a kind of pattern or get comfortable with how we write. So that challenge is kind of a good thing because it forces us to pay attention to that chemistry and that vibe and making sure that we’re still Norma Jean at the end of the day.
With so many different members, have you ever thought about potentially bringing some back and doing an O’ God, the Aftermath part two? Possibly as a b-side or maybe bringing some out to do a special one-off show?
Yes, a ton. That’s a conversation all the time. I think when it comes down to actually writing, we just get too excited about new stuff. But yeah, we have talked about that. That’s such a good question because no one’s ever asked that. I feel like most bands would be like, "What!? No way, bro.” And that sounds like a blast to me. I would love to do that because I think it would just come out really easy. I think of O’ God the Aftermath, for instance, like adolescence. I listen to that and I’m like, “Why did we do this? What was that idea for?” But it’s still a fun album. I think we could probably smash [a part two] out in like a week and it would be cool. We have talked about it, but you know, when you actually get into writing you get excited about new things and you just kind of see what comes out. We have written a few riffs that are like, “That’s an O’ God riff.” Or, “This sounds like Redeemer.” But yeah, I don’t know, maybe someday.
It’s pretty cool that All Hail is essentially an album for the fans and you’re also very open-minded to things like bringing back the old-school Norma Jean stuff.
Oh, totally man. That would break my heart if we were any other way because I’ve seen some fans say like, "I don’t like…” and this is really funny too, “I don’t like the new album. This specific old one is my favorite.” And that’s okay, 100%. I do that too. When someone says that, I think, “That’s cool. Even if you only like one album, you’re a Norma Jean fan. You like my music? That’s great, I’m happy about that.“ Also if we’re going to write and record music and release it for other people to hear it’s not ours anymore. You can’t just state “No one else can have an opinion on it.” That doesn’t make any sense. If you’re only writing music for yourself, then don’t release it. Just be true to that. But we want people to hear it, we want to play it live and have fun with it. There’s a lot of deep stories behind everything. Like I said before, at the end of the day, I want to get on stage and bounce around and lose my mind and have fun with our fans. You know, it’s essentially like a room full of friends hanging out. There’s so much cooler things that come out of keeping things positive like that and not letting those things affect you as an artist.
Going back to All Hail, how was it working with super producer Will Putney (Every Time I Die, Counterparts, Stray From The Path)? Was he pretty involved with things?
Oh yes, totally. At first, I was confused by his process. I didn’t know what it was. And it’s not like he sat down with us and said, "Hey, here’s how I like to do things. We’re gonna do this and then this and then this.” He was just kind of like, “Cool. Here’s the live room. Let’s set up in here and just play through the songs.” And we did several days of pre-production, which we like to do. I don’t know if he does that with every band he works with but he knew we like to do it. So he catered to it. And then you know, at first we’re just playing through the songs and he just kind of like – I love this story because he’s just like slumping in his chair like looking at his phone [laughs]. And I’m like, “Is this dude legit?” And then he was like, “Okay, so when you get to this part, it doesn’t feel right. Just mess around with that a little bit, see if you can get something else out of that riff or this drum part or something else.” Just him saying that to us, that it "didn’t feel right” and pushing us to work harder, then he’s like, “Play it again" and like, “Okay, you messed up. Start over. Play it again.” So we kind of saw what he was doing and [found out] why his records sound the way they do. You know, [the records are] accurate but you don’t lose the punch. You don’t lose the looseness of the band if they have any. But that just comes from him pushing us to pay attention to our instruments. You know, there were some songs we couldn’t play all the way through. So he just made us. You have to be a band, you have to play the song first and that was good to have because we get lazy and we’re just like, “Okay, that song’s done. We have demos, let’s move on.” So it ended up being just a super fun thing. And yeah, he jumped in on the lyrics, made sure things were being enunciated and just put everything under a microscope and he was super chill about it. He has a good sense of humor. Fun dude to hang out with and make an album with. He became a member of the band for that time.
Before All Hail was released, which song were you the most excited for fans to hear and which one were you the most nervous for fans to hear?
This might be the most boring answer I give but the whole album. I’m always worried about stuff like that. You know, I want the record to flow and all the songs to make sense together. It’s one big project. It’s one big song in a way. And at the same time, I’m excited to finally put it out and let everyone hear it. It was hard to pick singles for this album. When we put it all together we were all on the same page on what they were going to be for the most part. I think “Careen” might be one that’s out there for us. But the song’s good. It’s sludgy. It’s still heavy. So it’s not like we crossed into completely unknown territory. We have some “Falling From The Sky” vibes, some Meridional vibes in there. "Anna” definitely is very anthem-like. Garrett from Silent Planet sings on that song too. [“Careen” and “Anna”] for sure and they’re next to each other for a reason. I think once you get to that side of the album, you’re hearing something completely different. So I’m nervous about the flow of that, I guess. But it is what it is.
Yeah, well like you said, once the album’s out, it’s for the fans. It’s in their hands and we’ll all just kind of see what happens.
Yeah, man. I don’t know if you know what the Cult Of Done is but it’s like there’s no editing phase. When a change is made it becomes a new creation altogether. There really is no saying you’re done, there’s only abandoning it because you’ll never be done if you keep looking at it and keep building. So essentially you have to just abandon it. If you [keep] doing any editing whether it’s music or building a deck, it’s now a new thing that you’ve made. So that’s kind of how we view the writing process.