Sound Scene Express

NORM Strikes Bleak Alternative Rock Gold with New EP, “Amusement”

Album art by Evan Mulgrave
Band photo by Maranie Rae

The post-holiday winter blues are upon us—snow, ice, howling wind, complete darkness by 6 PM, and no more Christmas or New Year’s parties to look forward to. And as much as we might long for more appealing weather, similarly sunny songs don’t always do the trick. Sometimes, you need music that matches your melancholy, with just the right amount of cathartic heaviness and grunge. Luckily, local alternative rock band NORM has offered a spot-on, appealingly bleak soundtrack for the season. On December 5th, the group (consisting of bassist/vocalist Tom Chorba, guitarist Evan Mulgrave, and drummer James Conley) dropped their new five-song EP, Amusement.

Don’t let the tongue-in-cheek title mislead you. Throughout Amusement, NORM delivers poignant lyricism; passionate vocals; and emotionally-charged instrumentals, which succeed in both their quieter, thoughtful moments and their fervent, energetic ones. From the almost-punkish energy of the opening track (“I Don’t Care, You Pick”) to the weighty melancholy of the closer (“Burial”), it’s a solid, captivating listen.

NORM, formerly known as John Wayne Gretzky, first caught our attention with their breakout single, “Burial,” almost exactly a year ago. This project emerged as an experimental outlet for two former members of a very different-sounding band, the classic rock/blues-leaning Turnpike Gardens. (Chorba jumped in from There You Are.)

Still, this group clearly has a strong grasp on the darker side of songwriting. Their sound recalls the heavy moodiness of alt-rock groundbreakers from the previous decade: Superchunk, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden. But these influences don’t feel stale or overplayed. Instead, the ever-shifting balance between ardent desperation and jaded fatigue that characterized such artists (and drew millions to their music) is achieved again on Amusement, in a way that feels fresh and relevant.

Both lyrics and music are essential to this winning formula. Emotional exhaustion, with society in general and in personal relationships, is a recurring theme, and is explored with creativity and intensity. Lines like “If I found the perfect breakfast pastry/I might feel complete/My five-year plan is to be/obsolete” (from “Hell of a Handshake”) and “The cold wind starts to shake the trees/and dead leaves push out over the ground…I’m saying things I need to hear/but they’re hard to believe if you’re not around” (from “Maybe It Won’t”) are particular highlights. Chorba’s vocals deliver these words with convincing emotion (often rising to a shout when the occasion calls for it), as well as a strong balance between melodiousness and grit. Conley’s drums navigate the EP’s fluctuating energies expertly. And Mulgrave’s skillful, grungy guitar lines—whether melancholy fingerpicking, wall-of-sound power chords, or somewhere in between—are the essential centerpiece.

In the midtempo, moody standout “Spilled Milk,” Chorba repeatedly, fervently sings, “I just want to get this right.” Safe to say, he and the rest of NORM did just that. Whether you’re making a solitary drive down a lonely road on a cold grey winter day, or you need to let the world know you’re burnt out and sick of its shit, or you’re just looking for some quality alternative rock to start off your 2018 playlist, Amusement is absolutely worth your time.

The EP is now available for streaming and download on NORM’s Bandcamp page. Keep up with them on Facebook as well.

You can also catch a performance from NORM this Saturday, January 6th, at Club Café, alongside Ugly Blondes. Doors open at 10 PM and the music starts at 10:30. Tickets are $7, both online and at the door. Check out the Facebook event page here for more info. The show is 21+.

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About The Author

Melanie Stangl

Melanie, 28, is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and has been contributing both articles and photos to Sound Scene Express since April 2016. Her work has previously been published on Huffington Post Women,, and in the New York University textbook Mercer Street. Her goals include diving deeper into music journalism, traveling the world, and eventually being financially stable enough to own two dogs.

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