There was once a time, when Christian hardcore bands were consistently releasing music that could stand on its own feet in the larger scene. Some bands still are (ABR comes to mind), but one can’t deny the potency of what was being produced in the early to mid 2000’s. In such a diverse explosion of creativity within extreme Christian music, I’d be hard pressed to choose an album more pivotal than Norma Jean’s Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child. Released in 2002, it is the only album in the band’s discography to feature Josh Scogin on vocal duties, Bless The Martyr sports a level of visceral rage and artistic brazenness that is hard to match inside and outside their sphere of influence.
While the style of turbulent, mathematical, relentless metalcore Norma Jean helped popularize had already been pioneered by acts like Botch and Dillinger Escape Plan during previous years, the Douglasville natives added a healthy dose of accessibility to an intimidating wall of sound. Traditional notions of melody and songwriting are still forsaken in favor of dissonance and nonlinear arrangements, yet there are more followable and catchy passages to be found here. Whereas Dillinger’s Calculating Infinity (1999) stampedes over musical boundaries, Bless the Martyr allows some room to breathe without sacrificing heaviness or grit. This makes for a listening experience that can be as cohesive as it is jarring.
“The Entire World Is Counting On Me And They Don’t Even Know It” (remember when it was cool to use complex sentences as song titles?) gets straight to the point. Chaotic, atonal riffage and frenetic drumming create a perfect platform for Scogin’s unhinged delivery, which soon drops into the style of playing that makes Bless the Martyr so striking. Polyrhythmic band hits stab through the mix, with entirely incomprehensible vocals following suite. This is essentially Norma Jean seeing how far they can step over the line before ending up with nonmusical lunacy. Many would say that they found just that, but lots of people (including me) saw it as raw expression. This is what makes Bless the Martyr stand out: it’s entirely unapologetic about what it is, shoving itself down the listener’s throat.
While the opening track does do a good job of summing up what this album is all about, the following songs are far from derivative. “Face: Face” introduces infectious groove within the pandemonium, something that pervades throughout this album, and “Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste” serves as the ‘hit single’ of it. “Memphis…” is Norma Jean’s the flagship song for a reason. It destroys. With obliterating breakdowns, creepy interludes, and a killer spoken word outro in the midst of the style of songwriting was introduced in “The Entire World,” I can’t say enough about how great this song is. This isn’t to say that the rest of the album goes downhill.
Norma Jean is often associated with mathcore, which is understandable when one listens to “Creating Something Out Of Nothing, Only To Destroy It.” Largely centered around a 11/8 time signature, this track exemplifies an unprecedented amount of musicality before segueing into one of the most pissed of passages I’ve heard in any song. “LIKE BRINGING A KNIFE TO A GUNFIGHT” repeats over a crushing breakdown, only to collapse into the intro groove with an ever increasing wall of feedback. Said feedback transitions into the longest track on the album. “Pretty Soon, I Don’t Know What, But Something Is Going To Happen” is a strange animal. Drawing on sludge metal as much as it does mathcore and metalcore, listeners are greeted by a hypnotic dirge instead of taking a vicious beating. Even the midsection of the song, which starts to resemble what is expected from Norma Jean, maintains a trance-inducing quality. The drums are the musical standout on this track, keeping the repetitious from becoming monotonous and adding some tasty flare to sparse arrangements.
The rest of Bless the Martyr revolves around the elements that have been introduced thus far, albeit in various combinations. While “Sometimes It’s Our Mistakes That Make For The Greatest Ideas” and “It Was As If The Dead Man Stood Upon The Air” feature lurching broodiness, tracks like “The Shotgun Message” and “I Used To Hate Cell Phones But Now I Hate Car Accidents” feature unbridled sonic mayhem. “The Human Face, Divine” and the final track, “Organized Beyond Recognition,” bring Bless the Martyr to a close with compositional splendor. Sludgy, pandemonious riffage meshes with stirring atmospheres and progressive tendencies, which provides a solid ending to a brilliant album.
Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child stands with Underoath’s The Changing of Times and Zao’s Where Blood And Fire Bring Rest as a true milestone in the Christian music underground that can hold its own in any discussion of 00’s era of metalcore.
Listen to the Album here.
Review by Maxwell Heilman