In 1996, I was in a garage on Long Island to see a rare area appearance from a relatively unknown (at least in New York) Boston hardcore five-piece called Converge. As the summer heat dampened our eyebrows and clothing, the band ripped through a solid 25 minutes of ferocity and left everyone in the room slack-jawed and sweatier than when they arrived. It was an impressive showing, and I can guarantee that the 20 or so other attendees will agree that it was an intense and emotionally battering experience.
At that time, Converge had just released a seven-inch record on a tiny DIY label called Ferret, which included an anthemic, epic-length track called “The Saddest Day.” My 19-year-old mind was obliterated by the track, and it was obviously not a singularly unique experience; that song pinpoints the beginning of Converge’s ascent to their current status as one of the most popular and innovative hardcore acts on the planet. “The Saddest Day” was a sonic foreshadowing of what the band was capable of.
Fast-forward an entire decade to early September 2006. I’m out to see Converge again, but much has changed in the last 10 years. I’m no longer standing in a dirty garage next to an anonymous jalopy. I’m amongst 1,000 other people at the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia. The band has just begun a tour supporting another group who earned their stripes in the underground music scene and rose to international fame, Mastodon. The scene is inspiring and ironic; both bands manage to make uncompromisingly personal music that appeals to thousands of people around the globe.
Bear in mind that this is no rags-to-riches story. Converge are road-weary veterans that have literally spent years on tour and in the studio; 2007 will mark the band’s 17th birthday. The relentless work ethic has obviously paid off. Converge is on the cusp of releasing the heavily anticipated No Heroes, their seventh full-length, and their second release for punk super-label Epitaph Records.
The group takes the stage and pummels the crowd with the urgent one-two punch of “Concubine” and “Fault and Fracture,” the first two tracks off their landmark 2001 album Jane Doe. My spirit is transported back to that garage on Long Island; the music is just as poignant and just as emotionally relevant, even if I’m sharing it with a thousand strangers. As the set progresses, the band focuses on songs from Jane Doe and You Fail Me, as well as a few new songs from No Heroes.
At the epicenter of the chaotic din is vocalist and lyricist Jacob Bannon. Bannon has always appeared possessed on stage; his physicality channels people, places, and emotions present and past. He utilizes these elements to weave a pained yet hopeful cry that cuts through the blitzkrieg of riffs echoing out of Kurt Ballou’s guitar cabinet. His tattooed form presiding over the front of the stage is the easiest image to associate with the emotional workout that is a live Converge performance. He appears to control the noise, but haphazardly so. He is the picture of raw aggression, inspired and passionate.
“I have a positive outlet for my anger in a way,” Bannon says. “It allows for me to not always be a pressure-cooker waiting to explode. I am generally a quiet person largely for having that ability to purge things artistically.”
As Bannon implies, “quiet” is rarely a word that anyone would associate with any musical aspect of Converge, and if we’re to talk about the band’s sonic aesthetic, our discussion should begin with the aforementioned Jane Doe, a cinematic and masterfully cohesive recording that took many people by surprise. Here was a band typically associated with dog-piles and sing-alongs producing an album that never sacrifices integrity and aggression for concept, yet manages to highlight all three equally. With a rapidly developing maturity, the band began to focus more on small details that contributed to the entire picture. The singer acknowledges that issues like the sequence of songs became high priorities around the time of Jane Doe.
“With albums prior to [Jane Doe], we were younger and we were just happy to have completed our recordings. But with Jane Doe, You Fail Me, and No Heroes, we were writing albums, not collections of songs. For us there is a big difference. We want the listening experience to hold attention. All great albums that we appreciate ourselves have that quality.”
The sales figures associated with Jane Doe would indicate that thousands of music fans agreed with the band’s tastes. So did Epitaph Records, who eagerly added the band to their active roster in 2003. Converge began writing for their Epitaph debut, and continued with their experimentation and attention to detail. In 2004 they released You Fail Me, a record just as compelling, yet very different than Jane Doe. Of course, the album was chockfull of raging blasts of volume and velocity to remind fans that Converge was still firmly planted in the hardcore world. However, they added to the texture of the disc with songs like the Swans-esque dirge “In Her Shadow,” one of many testaments to the fact that Converge is able to maintain a signature sound, yet write dynamically.
“At this point with 15 years or so of progression in the same band, our sound is our own,” Bannon says. “We have more sonic control now and a greater musical dynamic. As the years pass, it seems the more refined and comfortable we become with ourselves creatively.”
With a new album in the can, fans will soon discover where Converge’s creative trajectory has led them this time. Unsurprisingly, on No Heroes the quartet comes out swinging. The first half of the album is like a hammer to the teeth; rapid-fire hardcore punk that eschews breakdowns in favor of a relentless attack. This may be a group of four aging musicians, but they still emanate the energy of their younger selves, hungry for pure aggression and visceral rage.
As we settle into a fairly unsettling beginning, the disc illustrates that in the short 24 or so months between albums, the band has further progressed as accomplished songwriters. A highlight is the somber “Plagues,” a slow, doom-ridden song that gradually develops into a primal, Neurosis-like stomp. Here, the focus is on vocal arrangements, an element of writing that the singer admits is a time-consuming yet fulfilling task that the entire band is a part of.
“Writing and creating phrasing for the band is challenging, as our material is not straightforward or predictable. I spend a great deal of time working on it. We definitely refine some phrasing in the studio, as I am very open to that.”
The vocal structure of the album hits a peak with “Grim Heart/Black Rose,” which features a turn from Jonah Jenkins of the seminal Boston outfit Only Living Witness. The song serves as an appropriate centerpiece that the album works up to. Jenkins’ singing is haunting, and Bannon’s back-up phrasing completes a dark and hypnotic picture. Only Living Witness was a band that helped shape Bannon’s interest in hardcore, and he was thrilled at the opportunity to get Jenkins into the creative process.
“He has been one of my favorite vocalists since I was a kid, and I grew up watching Only Living Witness play in the New England area. They were a band truly ahead of their time. When I listened back to the demo recordings of that song, in my head, I heard his voice singing a portion of the song. I approached him to do it and he was happy to be part of the album. It was truly an honor, as I respect him as a person and artist a great deal.”
No Heroes will prove to be another welcome addition to the Converge fan’s shelf. This is a band that refuses to compromise and insists on progressing rather than succumbing to the trappings of being a representative band of a niche genre. The only formulaic aspects of No Heroes is the band’s commitment to its art.
As Converge ends their set with the Jane Doe powerhouse “The Broken Vow,” I see various young thrashers experiencing that reliable burst of adrenaline that keeps even the oldest of fans returning to the pit. To my right I notice one such upstart swinging his arms like a windmill, his eyes closed, his mouth forming the words he has probably listened to hundreds of times before. This is the moment he’s been waiting for all night, an opportunity to commune with the music. Outside of the venue, there may not be any heroes. But here, amongst the sweaty masses, this young punk and his many cohorts recognize that there are four heroes in front of them, coercing their bodies into primal movements of anger, passion, and honesty.