No metalcore record is more ferocious than Converge‘s Jane Doe. Not the music that influenced it nor the music that was affected by it. As a teenaged metalhead, I found out about them while browsing through the roster of bands on Equal Vision Records‘ website. The now-iconic album art created by frontman Jacob Bannon depicts a strange woman’s face tilted up with a look of doom and resignation. It scared me the way horror movies scare me, so I decided to give it a play. I had never been so shocked by music before listening to this album, never heard anything so precise and severe. Jane Doe made me uncomfortable, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not, but I wanted to keep listening. It felt like a challenge to absorb something so abrasive and rhythmically intricate.
Released in 2001, at a time when “there was no possibility of a career in metallic hardcore”, according to guitarist Kurt Ballou, Jane Doe remains cunning and scathing and wild and timeless. Even now, after metalcore has gone in and out of commercial viability within the last 20 years, it stands as a visionary art record. I say art record because Converge had no interest in making an album geared toward commercial success. They made this album for their own sake, and it happened to garner commercial success and critical acclaim. Jane Doe went beyond the standard for savagery and structure in the blended world of metallic hardcore and earned itself the glory it deserves.
In 1998, Ballou and frontman Jacob Bannon, both co-founders of Converge, were at a turning point. After a few releases, the band had become unstable. They had Aaron Dalbec on guitar, who dedicated part of his time to fellow Massachusetts hardcore punk band, Bane. Still, they were down a bassist and drummer. Not knowing what to do, Ballou considered calling it quits entirely. Then, Nate Newton and Ben Kollar entered the scene in 1999, first as temporary players before becoming full-time members. Converge began to galvanize into a group with a sense of individuality. “We really started to become what we were meant to be,” Ballou told Kerrang! “We had the right group of people that all kind of had the same mentality.” Converge became a powerful force, a singularity with a unifying goal, and they had the songs to prove it.
The band tuned their guitars down to drop C and entered Q Division Studios in 2001 with producer and sound engineer Matthew Ellard, who previously worked with broader rock acts like Morphine and Star Ghost Dog. At the time, Ballou was growing as an audio engineer himself, so he worked closely with Ellard during the recording sessions to learn the technical aspects of making a record. Ellard recognized Converge’s ambition and potential. “They realized they had a good batch of songs. There was a swagger about them,” Ellard said during a public discussion with Ballou at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The fact that Ellard never worked with metal or hardcore punk bands appealed to Ballou, who was not interested in making an album that sounded like the work of his peers. And with what little they had, they made a masterfully unparalleled record.
Everything was recorded on reels of two-inch tape. This is before digital software, namely Pro Tools, took over the music recording process. It also may be why the album doesn’t suffer from that overproduced sound that hinders many metalcore albums of later years. Digital production can take the flavor out of heavy music and cause it to sound overly clean, indistinct, and kind of bland. Instead, Jane Doe benefits from the rougher texture of an analog recording.
Converge spent 13 days in the studio recording Jane Doe with a modest budget of $1,100. Considering the critical acclaim, the massive exposure, and the album’s everlasting legacy, Jane Doe’s reception became another turning point, this time for the better. All the members were able to leave their professional careers and become full-time musicians. They were able to tour and support the album as well as themselves. Jane Doe allowed them to continue to make music.
The band even released a live album of Jane Doe performed in its entirety in 2017, recorded in the previous year’s Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. Titled Jane Live, the accuracy and intensity that goes into replicating these songs in real-time are profound. Jacob Bannon has stated, “We started as a hardcore/punk rock band, and we’ll end as a hardcore/punk rock band. There are no ‘get-ups,’ no-nonsense, no posing, no playing a character; It’s just four guys writing songs that are challenging. That’s it.” That proves to be remarkably accurate when watching the band on stage.
They perform a stripped-down show with no flashy lights or gimmicks, but there is plenty of animosity. Newton puts his entire body into playing bass, thrashing around and whipping his hair. Bannon runs through what seems like endless stamina. He stalks back and forth, holds his arms out to the audience, cups the microphone, and presses it up to his face as he unleashes full-bodied shrieks. Kollar demonstrates frantic yet controlled drumming on songs like the trigger happy opener, “Concubine”, with its explosive blast beats.
The three-song sweep of “Homewrecker”, “The Broken Vow”, “Bitter and Then Some” is a relentless, fast-paced, and astounding display of exhaustive brutality. “Heaven in Her Arms” adds to the fierceness and punctuates it with a devastating breakdown, possibly the most memorable part of the show. Then there’s the slow cooking “Phoenix in Flight”, an atmospheric downtempo tune dredged in emblazoned chords that ring out lengthily. That’s followed by the short attack of “Phoenix in Flames”, a 42-second song of crashing vocals and drums. The show ends with the title track, a churning, atmospheric piece that pulls in elements of blues into doom metal to deliver a weathered finality.
Performing these songs live takes a massive amount of energy, endurance, and a disregard over damaging vocal cords. This is more than a live recreation of their music. Performing Jane Doe is a physical hardship. Imagine the adrenaline flowing in torrents. Imagine the connection they feel with each other as well as the audience. A true Converge fan knows all the beats and unpredictable changes in timing and rhythm. The fans put effort into the performance along with the band, and it’s exciting to watch and be with them every step of the way. They struggle together, and that was always the point of making and listening to music like this. The challenge elevates the significance.