Chaotic Spirals

The noise rock of Norma Jean reflects patterns of grace and mercy

As the fringes of music become more and more extreme, kids are listening to bands that increasingly embrace the concept of noise, ironically challenging the preconceptions of older listeners for whom the default criticism of music they don't like is something to the effect of: "just a lot of noise."

Call it thrash metal or hardcore or whatever; the Atlanta-based Norma Jean, after just three albums, have proven themselves one of the finest in the extreme-music world. And they're coming to rock Tucsonans on Sunday, March 25, at, well, The Rock.

The all-ages concert is part of Norma Jean's springtime Great American Noise Tour, which also includes the bands The Chariot, A Life Once Lost and The Handshake Murders.

All handpicked by Norma Jean, the support acts (hailing from Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, respectively) all play different versions of noise rock that, because they are new, have so far gone unscrutinized by the popular media. Each has, or will have, new products in stores. Norma Jean is therefore helping to bring them to the attention of new listeners.

"They're all great friends of ours," said bass player Jake Schultz during a cell-phone interview earlier this week. "When we headline a tour, we always try to pick the bands that go out with us. We want to take dudes on the road with us who are like family, who we like to hang out with."

However, the impact of those other bands' CDs pales in comparison to Norma Jean's latest achievement, the grand statement that is Redeemer. All noise rock and extreme metal must bow to this CD. Listening to Norma Jean is sometimes like listening to free jazz in that it spirals out in more and more chaotic ways until it almost becomes a spiritual pursuit.

Schultz praised producer Ross Robinson for helping Norma Jean reach such heights of collective expression. Because he produced pivotal albums for such acts as Korn, Limp Bizkit, Sepultura and Slipknot in the 1990s, Robinson is known to some as the "godfather of nü-metal," a dubious honor at best.

But he also was the visionary behind the boards for the Cure's 2004 comeback album, The Cure, as well as the amazing genre-defying albums Relationship of Command by At the Drive-In and ... Burn, Piano Island, Burn by The Blood Brothers.

So he's ideal for Redeemer, on which the overall sound quality is based on crackling noise metal to the extreme, but at the same time is clean and to the point--ferociously refined. The guitars of Scottie Henry and Chris Day are intricately articulated, but still somehow brutally chaotic, gnashing together in dissonant and off-kilter harmony, creating textures and melodies as ornate and haunting as a muezzin's call or an Indian raga.

And if that sounds a little spiritual, then so be it.

The members of Norma Jean--average age 26--are not reluctant to speak openly about their shared Christian faith.

But the music is a long way from Stryper. Norma Jean formed about five years ago, Schultz said, from the ashes of a Nirvana cover band. He added that they have been influenced by Nirvana's heaviness, as well as the aggressiveness of such acts as Unsane, Helmet and Pantera.

It's been said before about other bands, but it remains true of Norma Jean: The guys in it don't constitute a Christian rock band as much as they are a rock band, the members of which happen to be Christians. Ultimately, though, they don't even mind their publicist referring to them in press materials as a Christian rock band.

"We really don't feel like it's limiting," said Schultz. "Once again, it's not necessarily us; it's what people say about us. We're not denying it by any means. We're all Christian dudes, and that's what our beliefs are founded on. But we're pretty easygoing. People can call us what they want. Not a lot of things bother us."

Except for, of course, hypocrisy, corruption, inner turmoil, spiritual poverty and the creeping specter of evil addressed in the band's song lyrics. And those subjects can refer just as easily to Christians as to pagans.

The band members' faith also inspired their name; when the band was formed, it was a reference to the birth name of Marilyn Monroe, but it grew to mean so much more.

As Schultz said, "Then, later, we read in a book of name origins that Norma meant pattern, and Jean means grace and mercy. So together, it means patterns of grace and mercy."