[21 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
By the time any ordinary band is fortunate enough to make it to its 20th year, chances are that they’ve settled into a nice, comfortable little groove, their longevity made possible by giving the fans exactly what they want, rarely if ever deviating from the musical path they’ve created. And that’s fine; there are plenty of bands out there who continue to reliably churn out the kind of music whose strength is more its familiarity than its groundbreaking qualities. On the other hand, there’s Converge, a band for whom the word “complacency” is not in their vocabulary.
Much will be said in magazines and on websites in the coming months about how Mastodon is the American metal band of the decade, but while their four-album run during the 2000s was a formidable one, it’s impossible to ignore the stunning four full-lengths that Converge has churned out these last nine years. While 2001’s groundbreaking Jane Doe played a vital role in blurring the lines between metal and hardcore this decade (along with Botch’s We Are the Romans and Coalesce’s 0:12 Revolution in Just Listening), the Massachusetts band didn’t stop there, delivering a series of full-lengths that didn’t so much reinvent the band as re-interpret its sound. 2004’s You Fail Me placed strong emphasis on darker, brooding tones, while 2006’s No Heroes blended white-hot intensity with epic song structures and spacious arrangements, both albums masterful in execution, every bit the equal of the revered Jane Doe. Most fascinatingly, all of that is nothing compared to Converge’s seventh tortured opus, which sees the foursome of vocalist Jacob Bannon, guitarist Kurt Ballou, bassist Nate Newton, and drummer Ben Koller perfecting their style, capping off this decade on a thrilling, shattering, explosive note.
All the ingredients one expects from a Converge record are all there on Axe to Fall: Ballou’s sensational half-atonal/half-flashy guitar work and the trademark tone which makes him one of the best producers in extreme metal today, Newton’s and Koller’s massive rhythm section, and Bannon’s ultra-intense screams, not to mention his bent for some of the most unflinching, confrontational lyrics today. Only, on this album, that ferocious, ultra-taut approach is now offset by a sly hint of genuine catchiness that the band has never quite attempted before. The songs are still as searing as always, but underneath all the aggression is an accessibility that draws us in while never compromising the musical integrity whatsoever, and the balance between those two disparate characteristics is masterful.
As is always the case, Axe to Fall‘s dozen tracks range from two-minute blasts to lengthier compositions. As for the short stuff, much of it is rhythmically more direct than anything Converge has done on their previous three records, Koller relying heavily on swift “d-beat” rhythms reminiscent of Discharge, which in turn frees up Ballou to let loose on guitar like he’s never done before. The skittering main riff of “Dark Horse” is jaw-dropping, offset by dissonant rhythm riffs that echo Bob Mould’s deafening live performances with Hüsker Dü and Sugar. “Dead Beat” at first leans heavily towards Converge’s Unsane influence, but quickly veers into wrist-paralyzing fretwork that rivals Pig Destroyer’s Scott Hull and the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ben Weinman. “Cutter”, on the other hand, is quintessential d-beat punk, Ballou and Newton locking into a wicked groove, riffs and bassline mirroring each other powerfully.
Keeping true to hardcore’s communal aspect, the band brings in a host of co-conspirators to contribute to the album, and while members of Disfear, Cave In, Blacklisted, and Himsa all lend a helping hand, the two tracks that make up the final 11 minutes of the album are the ones that benefit most significantly from the guest collaborators. With its acoustic guitar and carefully plunked piano, “Cruel Bloom” is a shocking turn, with Neurosis’s Steve Von Till adding some terrific, gravelly vocals that lend the track a Tom Waits quality before the climactic wave of distortion returns to the monstrous tones that we normally hear in Von Till’s regular band. The seven-minute “Wretched World” acts as an unsettling coda, Genghis Tron’s Mookie Singerman providing cleanly-sung lead vocals that add a surreal quality that offsets Bannon’s blind rage superbly.
Make no mistake, though, this is still a Converge record. Bannon’s lyrics often tread the same territory that every other hardcore band does, but as blunt as he sounds, there’s an eloquence to it all, whether tackling self-mutilation (“Severed my roots of dead family trees / Finding the damage inside”), the journey of the self (“My barren plan to be a better man / Rots in abandoned fields”), or pure rage (“I’ve fed their rabid feast yet / Still pick from my own bones”). And musically, the chemistry between the four is remarkable, the most notable example being “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast”. The closest Converge has ever come to pure doom metal, Ballou’s sustained chords, bent strings, and screeching lead fills are anchored by Newton’s and Koller’s disciplined approach, the chemistry more than apparent during the Big Black-esque break, during which all four members, well, converge in a way that has the rest of us marveling at not only how these guys manage to still sound so fresh on record, but actually get better with each one they put out.