twentynine Scene #3: Norma Jean - Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child (2002)
The year 2019 is now Twenty Nine-Scene. Join Two Minutes to Late Night co-creator Drew Kaufman as he looks at back at the seminal albums that defined what it meant to be someone who lived for -core between the years 1999 to 2009. Screamo, power violence, mall metal, whatever your older brother called it. Do these albums still live up to their hype, or are they beautiful little time capsules buried beneath the bank parking lot where you and your friends would practice your mosh moves before the big show? Buckle up your studded seat belts and pull your old snake bites out from the scrapbook as we crowd surf our way to the bathroom during number 3, Norma Jean’s Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child.
Jesus Christ, it’s a Christian band.
Being a Jew in the scene was tough, dude. I had thick, curly hair, so having a hairstyle akin to Goku trying return broken picture frames at Target was out of the question. There were a few years where I looked like I played backup sousaphone in the Mars Volta but mostly I was just a weird kid with a buzz cut and my girlfriend’s bootcut jeans. Oh, and my best friend was a born again Christian so every time I went to his house his family would pray for my soul and try to convert me. The food was always great though, so I kept coming back.
I found Norma Jean through him, who in turn bought Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child at a Christian book store with his mom. Of course, none of that made any sense to me at the time. As far as I knew, metal was about Satan; specifically, him being pretty sick. But Norma Jean opened a door to me and many other kids into this world of Christian metal. It didn’t make me Mosh 4 Christ but it certainly piqued my interest in bands who spread the gospel more than someone like Thousand Foot Crutch or Five Iron Frenzy (just kidding, I looooove Five Iron Frenzy. Christian ska gets a pass *cough* the Aquabats *cough*).
So does Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child hold up?
Kinda. Mostly? I’m not sure.
Listening to Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child felt like a nostalgic chore to me. The second I hit play I was struck with the harsh truth: other than some really evil sounding breakdowns, this album is mostly a bunch of filler written by talented kids. With Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, Norma Jean created what I would have to call “dramatic metalcore.” Without ever getting into the territory of doom metal, or post-rock, this album is a consistent slow build that boils over more so than exploding. While their contemporaries were more inspired by the shaken baby syndrome stylings of the Dillinger Escape Plan, this period of Norma Jean seems to be more inspired by the aggressive waltzes of Botch and the brooding plots of horror movies. It’s a good album, but it’s certainly a product of its time and it feels pretty boring now.
I remember vividly thinking this album was one of the heaviest things I’ve ever heard, and I thought I was crazy all of this week until I went back and read original reviews for Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child to confirm. This album was really heavy for 2002, but Jethro Tull won a Grammy for best metal performance in 1987 so time is not to be trusted. This album is actually a huge fluke in my opinion and more of a demo for The Chariot than a real Norma Jean album. If you don’t agree with me, think about this: Norma Jean has seven goddamn albums and only one of them sounds like this. Almost immediately after the release of this album, vocalist Josh Scogin leaves to start The Chariot and Norma Jean reinvents themselves with their new singer Cory Brandan. The follow-up album, O’God, The Aftermath, also known as the so-many-puns album or the all-of-my-friends-had-that-shirt album, is significantly peppier and aggressive. Daniel Davidson’s drumming was more than impressive on Bless the Martyr but it’s downright intimidating on O’God. We’ll get more into that later.
The songs which I remember most, “Memphis Will Be Laid to Waste” and “Face:Face”, are mostly nothing. The average song on this album is 10% squelching guitars, 50% construction equipment drums, and 40% just absolute dead air. Even the famous “Creating Something Out Of Nothing” with its unforgettable mid-breakdown chant of “like bringing a knife to a gunfight” falls flat 17 years removed. Oddly enough, the aptly named 16-minute song, “Pretty Soon I Don’t Know What But Something Is Going To Happen” was my favorite. I looked at that running time and thought, “Jesus Christ, you have got to be kidding me” but Jesus blessed me a very well paced song that held my interest longer than any of the shorter singles. The Lord works in mysterious ways (despite not existing).
But This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race Let's tear apart Listening to Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child and Norma Jean.
No Hardcore Dancing In The Living Room: Can you mosh to Listening to Bless the Martyr? Of course. I think that honestly may be the only reason everyone is still so nostalgic for this album. Every track on this album, even the 16-minute one has a 90-foot-marble-statue-handful of sturdy breakdowns. Most notable being middle breakdown in “Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste.”
Gluing Carpet to Your Genitals Does Not Make You A Cantaloupe: Are Norma Jean’s song titles nonsense? Oh yeah, dude. This is some biblical shit. With titles like "Sometimes It's Our Mistakes That Make for the Greatest Ideas" and "The Entire World Is Counting On Me, and They Don't Even Know It”, you can count on some heavy-handed lessons and a parable or two. Also "I Used to Hate Cell Phones, But Now I Hate Car Accidents" has not aged well because any sane person hates them both. Fuck you, Zuckerberg.
You’re Cute When You Scream: Josh Scogin’s screaming vocals are still absolutely incredible on this album. His yelps are not as intense as his holy-shit-I’m-going-to-puke style during his time with the Chariot, but they definitely have an intimidating dry heave. However, pretty much half of this album is him making weird humming noises to fill up time. There are a full six minutes of instrumentation before he kicks in the door during “Pretty Soon I Don’t Know What But Something Is Going To Happen” and in between breakdowns he mostly sounds like he’s practicing for his Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat audition in the other room. Also, Aaron Weiss’s guest vocals on “Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste” have always rubbed me the wrong way. I think it’s because he sounds like he’s trying to do an impression of a preacher but he’s basing it off of Quentin Tarantino’s cameo in Little Nicky.
Nothing We Say Leaves This Room: Is this album problematic?No, sir. These are wholesome God-fearing boys. Looking through the lyrics, I didn’t see anything that stood out, but I did lean that Memphis is a biblical city in Egypt. Crazy. All this time I thought “Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste” was about the time I got violent diarrhea from eating fried okra at a Church’s Chicken.
Hey, It’s Your Funeral, Mama: So whatever happened to Norma Jean? Well, Norma Jean is still around, but no one who played on this album is still in this band. In fact, none of the original members at all are in Norma Jean. How does that even work, is Norma Jean like a football team or something? However, because of that, this album is really nothing more than a piece of nostalgia than anything else. Everything good about this album became great when Josh Scogin incorporated it into his new band (which is now an old band), The Chariot. Meanwhile, Norma Jean then releases O’God, The Aftermath, which is just fine. It’s not super amazing other than a solid basement for the new permanent sound of Norma Jean. The next two releases by Norma Jean, Redeemer (2006) and The Anti-Mother (2008), are absolute masterpieces and worth your time way more than Bless The Martyr. Those two albums are more like Thrice with teeth, which again is the real sound of Norma Jean if you look at it statistically. Especially Redeemer which is the same backing band as Bless the Martyr minus the bassist. And If you won’t listen to newer Norma Jean because it doesn’t sound like Bless the Martyr, you might as well just listen to their even earlier work under the name Luti-Kriss where they played literal nü-metal, complete with a DJ scratching records. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
I give Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child three flatirons out of five. If you want a five out of five experience, throw on “A Grand Scene For A Color Film” and spin kick your friend through a glass coffee table.