“How many metal heads does it take to change a light bulb? Ten; one to change it, and nine to bitch about how much better the old one was.”
It’s a tired joke, but it couldn’t be more apt when describing the predicament faced by any metal or hardcore band that is saddled with the burden of following up an earth-shattering, genre-defining album. Massachusetts’s own Converge knows the feeling, having caught lightning in a bottle on its seminal 2001 album Jane Doe, an exhilarating exercise in metallic hardcore that was greeted with euphoria among hardcore and metal fans alike when it first hit stores, and continues to rise in stature as the years go by, to the point now where it is (justifiably) regarded as one of the most important extreme albums so far this decade. One would think that the question of where to go next would be an immense one, but considering the bold direction Converge took on the astonishing 2004 album You Fail Me, there’s no pressure being felt by these fellas whatsoever.
In fact, if Jane Doe was a hundred mile an hour fastball aimed squarely at the jaw of the listener, You Fail Me was a devastating change-up, an Eephus pitch that threw everyone for a loop. Similar to Slayer following Reign in Blood with South of Heaven, Converge made an abrupt shift from intricate, hyperkinetic mathcore to simpler, controlled aggression, the down-shifted tempos allowing songs to breathe more, vocalist Jacob Bannon increasing the use of cleanly sung vocals, and ace guitarist Kurt Ballou even picking up an acoustic guitar for one track. That the band made it all seem so effortless was even more admirable, and two years later, that smooth transition continues on an album that tops its predecessor and comes awfully close to equaling the mighty Jane Doe.
By integrating introspective musical themes with the band’s renowned aggression much more cohesively than on You Fail Me, No Heroes finds a solid middle ground between the contrasting styles of the last two records. In fact, the new album is a distinct tale of two sides. The band wastes no time whatsoever in unleashing six scorching songs over the first 11 minutes, highlighted by the lurching grind of “Heartache” and the rampaging double-time hardcore of “Hellbound”, followed by the ferocious title track, during which Bannon delivers a blunt political diatribe that would be incomprehensible were it not for a lyric sheet, bellowing, “Our world of widows needs to be saved / It’s now or never / Victim or victory.”
It’s during the key mid-album track “Plagues”, though, that the worm starts to turn, the record taking a sharp turn toward even darker themes, as Ballou’s guitar work starts to dominate. Arguably the most expressive guitarist in metal/hardcore today, his riffs in “Plagues” have a screeching, industrial quality, yet, typical of his work, never abandons the primary melody that lurks underneath all the dissonance. Couple Ballou’s prowess with the fact that nobody can make slow, plodding tempos sound as tense, as thrilling as Converge can, and you’ve got the makings of a sensational second half of the album.
“Orphaned” slyly incorporates clean, melodic guitar sequences over the band’s trademark hardcore syncopation, while Ballou and Bannon both channel the great Big Black on the two minute skronkfest “Lonewolves”, as bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller lay down an ungodly groove. “Trophy Scars”, on the other hand, is one of the catchiest songs the band has ever recorded and yet doesn’t compromise the band’s underground aesthetic whatsoever, the shouted refrain (“I want to live! / Without the guilt we give!”) destined to go over huge in concert. Converge has always been especially great when it comes to lengthy tracks, and No Heroes peaks with the stunning nine and a half minute epic “Grim Heart / Black Rose”. Infused with massive doom riffs and basslines, and punctuated by Koller’s punishing drumming, the song features some superb emotional vocals by Jonah Jenkins (formerly of the great underground band Only Living Witness), Bannon’s self loathing reaching a new low as Jenkins croons such lines as, “When I see me in your eyes / I just want to go blind.” By the time Bannon enter the fray with his screams two thirds of the way through, the tension becomes even more palpable, as the song careens to a monstrous, galloping conclusion.
Produced, engineered, and mixed entirely by Ballou, the first time he’s ever done so for Converge, No Heroes is a marked change from the claustrophobic You Fail Me, the abrasion rivaling the work of Steve Albini, but the guitar tones just warm and spacious enough to draw listeners in more. Yet another astonishing album by a band seemingly incapable of recording a dud, it’s the finest metal/hardcore crossover album of 2006, one that refuses to be lumped in any category, save for one, that it’s nothing more than classic Converge. Which is all we ever ask of the guys.