No longer unknown after 2001's Jane Doe, Converge is really influencing the punk scene.
by Scott Harrell
In the three years and change since the abrasive, experimental Boston hardcore act Converge released its most recent album, the trendiest end of the punk playground has undergone what motivated young boardroom types refer to as a "paradigm shift." The punk-pop/emo cup ran over, spilling clichéd three-chord hooks and socially acceptable journal entries onto major-label rosters, sales charts and FM hot sheets in unprecedented volume. What happened was familiar enough: The Next Big Thing became The Hot New Thing and then The Accepted Thing to a wider, more mainstream audience.
The process left a vacuum. In keeping with the ancient and mystical laws governing musical evolution and the contemporary and pragmatic laws of target marketing, the vacuum needed to be filled with something vaguely related to -- yet conspicuously rebelling against -- what came before. So the kids dug a little deeper into their journals. And apparently they found some truly disturbing, anti-social shit in there, because they went looking for a truly disturbing, anti-social sound to match.
And that, of course, is now The Next Big Thing -- heavily tattooed young men with black hair and holes in their ears the size of quarters, borrowing equally from the punk scene's independent methodology and extreme metal's complex brutality, in order to exorcise emotions far too ugly for infectious harmonies. It all sounds a little -- and looks a lot -- like the darkly cathartic vision Converge has pursued for well over a decade.
Some people might consider Converge a progenitor of the burgeoning screamo/metalcore scene. "We don't really think about it like that," bassist Nate Newton replies. "I think I can speak for everybody. ... We've never really aligned ourselves with that whole thing; we never put a name to what we do. To us, it's just hardcore. If bands are influenced by us, that's great. It's really flattering. But we try not to think about it that way.
"And just look at us," he adds with a laugh. "If you're influenced by this group of four dudes, you've got problems." Since 1991, Converge has released more music than some independent labels' entire rosters. The band's sound has always been singular, even in a punk scene as diverse as Boston's, which has spawned everything from Mission of Burma's iconoclastic tape loops to Hatebreed's menacing chunk. Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon's poetic, unflinching lyrics and trademark shriek were only partially responsible for setting the band apart. The group -- rounded out by guitarist Kurt Ballou and drummer Ben Koller -- has consistently and successfully bucked hardcore's hard, fast and simple conventions. It has created and is forever refining a frenetic, visceral signature as unpredictable as it is evocative.
More than anything, the time-honored Converge sound is both chaotic and relentlessly heavy. But Newton figures the group took those particular facets of its style about as far as possible on its almost universally lauded 2001 album, Jane Doe. Its just-released album on Epitaph Records, the adventurous You Fail Me, tempers the expected onslaught with more textured dynamics and extended slow burns.
"My personal issue with Jane Doe is, there's something to be said for having the aggression and energy on 10 the whole time, but at the same time, come on, give me a chance to breathe," he says. "I feel like You Fail Me is a more mature album, but it still keeps that energy."
Longtime fans should be pleased that listening to the "more mature" Converge is still much like riding the world's fastest old-school wooden roller coaster. In a car with a broken restraint. While wearing a blindfold. There's a very human volatility to You Fail Me that lends the album a punkier vibe than those of most of its more metallic contemporaries. The warm, comparatively unprocessed instrumental tones don't hurt in that category, either.
"People do lump us in with the metal scene. I think, generally, they don't know what to make of us. But if someone asks, we're a punk band; we're a hardcore band," Newton says. "We're influenced by metal to the extent that we listen to metal -- and that's more classic stuff than contemporary -- but as far as the way we operate as a band and the way we view things, we're definitely a punk band. And I don't mean punk in the sense of the word the media likes to portray. I mean punk as a mindset. At least, that's how I like to see us."
Given the exploding state of weighty subgenres like metalcore and the fact that Converge's previous album was its heaviest effort to date, it's unlikely that new fans and the press at large will stop associating the 13-year-old band with The Next Big Thing anytime soon. While Newton admits the notion can be irritating, he and his bandmates are more than experienced enough to focus on what counts.
"You read some of the bigger publications out there, and we do get lumped in with those bands sometimes. It can be a little disheartening. But at the same time," he reasons, "I don't really care that much. What kind of impact does that have on my life? Not much. We play music because we enjoy it, and all that peripheral stuff -- what somebody says about our record and who they compare it to -- it doesn't really matter."