Fitting somewhere between the progressive hardcore madness of The Dillinger Escape Plan and the classic grindcore of Napalm Death, Boston's Converge has been steadily honing their craft over the past decade, their perpetual cycle of album-tour-album-tour establishing them as one of the most well-traveled bands in hardcore today. When a band tours relentlessly and churns out the albums year after year, very often it makes for a sloppy, often monotonous studio product, and in a genre like hardcore, once a rival band puts out a breakthrough album that stretches the limits of the genre, then such workmanlike music can be easily left in the dust. In 2004, The Dillinger Escape Plan has thrown down the gauntlet, as their masterful Miss Machine has raised the bar for hardcore music everywhere, and it's up to all the other bands to try to come up with something fresh and original themselves. Fortunately, and to their credit, Converge has done just that.
While Dillinger's recent album takes hardcore to a virtuosic new level, and Pig Destroyer's recent Terrifyer is one of the most thrilling, harrowing extreme music experiences in recent memory, Converge's latest album is all about emotion. It's all there in the title: You Fail Me. Veering away from the chaotic strains of 2001's Jane Doe, You Fail Me goes a lot deeper than the usual miserable sentiment you get from such a band. Instead of harping along emptily, full of the kind of hackneyed emotion we get from the likes of screamo bores Billy Talent and the masters of metal self-loathing, Slipknot, Converge has accomplished something altogether different. Yeah, they're glum, and they say they've been hard done by, but the music actually manages to sound expressive enough to make such been-there-done-that sentiment sound truly genuine for once.
You hear such skill in the band's ability to expertly convey misery instantly on the opening track, "First Light". Strictly a minute-long prelude to the rest of the album, guitarist Kurt Ballou delivers a distorted, jarring solo that evokes the gutwrenching beauty of the guitar work by the late Kurt Cobain, a somber, sobering composition. As soon as "Last Light" kicks in, however, the entire band gets down to business, drummer Ben Koller thrashing away, delivering propulsive, frenetic polyrhythms, as both Ballou and bassist Nate Newton provide simple, sustained, melodic chord sequences. Vocalist Jacob Bannon contributes surprisingly strong lyrics, hollering, "I need to know that there is trophy and meaning/To all that we lose and all we fight for," as the song concludes with a brief coda of stuttering rhythms and guitar jolts, with Bannon repeating lines like a mantra: "Keep breathing/Keep living/Keep searching/Keep pushing on/Keep bleeding/Keep healing/Keep fading."
Several tracks early on veer more towards more of a grindcore sound, Ballou's nimble guitar and Koller's phenomenal drumming possessing a mesmerizing cohesion. The best example is "Drop Out", which has Koller alternating from straightforward 4/4 grind drumming and elaborate snare fills and cymbal crashes, while Ballou's licks border on the kind of controlled insanity that Captain Beefheart excelled at.
You Fail Me reaches a stunning climax midway through, beginning with the title track. The simplest, most direct song on the album, "You Fail Me" starts with an extended intro of sludgy chords and midtempo drumming, with Bannon spouting some powerful lyrics: "You fail me as love's greatest war/That was never worth/You were never worth fighting for." Then, two minutes in, Ballou abandons his hardcore strains in favor of a more atmospheric, almost Fugazi-like sound, beginning a pattern of descending chords that repeats for the next five minutes, the screeching, cascading notes offsetting the pure, raw desperation of Bonner's verses perfectly. Equally harrowing, but in direct contrast, is "In Her Shadow", which immediately follows, a much more contemplative song, featuring a forlorn, weakly strummed acoustic guitar and a melodic bassline by Newton.
The remaining tracks maintain the pace set by the first two thirds of the album, especially the explosive concluding track "Hanging Moon", which ends so abruptly, your heart skips a beat. You Fail Me has the perfect running time for this style of music, a tidy 35 minutes, but while many hardcore bands would have a hard time even getting through half an hour before sounding repetitive, every element of this particular record is gripping, as Converge take listeners on one of the most wrenching emotional journeys we've heard from a hardcore band in a long time.