Harmonic insurgents - The graphic intensity of Converge
By: JAMES PARKER
I have brought a large amount of Red Bull, the journalist’s friend, to my interview with Converge. My bag is clanking with it as I skip in terror from the portable toilet in the parking lot opposite GodCity studios. (What is this vile matter coating the walls? Did someone get “tipped” in here? Pushed over and rolled around in a chemical/excremental sarcophagus? Is this what they do in downtown Salem?) Nervous about my inability to penetrate the Converge gestalt — the daunting, hermetic aura that these Salem-based metallurgists have conjured around themselves — I have pinned my hopes on strong doses of glucose and caffeine and the mysterious elixir “taurine”: blood buzzer, liberator of tongues.
So I am a little dashed when Kurt Ballou (guitar) and Jacob Bannon (voice), in the soundproofed hush of GodCity, politely decline the proffered cans. Now what? I might actually have to ask some intelligent questions. Because if you’re a critic, Converge put you to work. A mile away from the hockey-rink boom of the current metal moment, the user-friendly riffs and breastbeating melodies, these dudes — whose new full-length, No Heroes, was released October 24 on Epitaph — demand their own definitions. Birthed in the same hardcore/metal crossover scene as Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage, they matured at an aggressive tangent: from Ballou’s barbed, encrypted chord patterns to Bannon’s flayed screaming and in-the-red lyrics, the usual influences have been differently processed, fed through different matrices. The lead riff in the new song “Plagues” is like Only Living Witness’s “Prone Mortal Form” strained through layers of charcoal. “Weight of the World,” coiling its guitar line around empty shocks of kickdrum-and-crash, recalls the Amphetamine Reptile bands, or the snakeskin grind of Jesus Lizard.
And then there’s Philadelphia’s Starkweather, unsung but unforgotten — at least by Bannon. “Starkweather changed my life,” he says. “They were the first dudes I met that didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs but weren’t card-carrying straight-edge kids. They didn’t look like jocks, they didn’t listen to Youth of Today, or Bold — they hated that world. And emotionally, I got ’em. They came from a much darker and more intense place, it had more in common with Celtic Frost than it did with, I dunno, Chain of Strength or something. It was awesome to me, and it definitely altered my path as a person.”
Bannon is slight, poised, soft-spoken, and tattoo’d from his throat to his fingers — a man of dangerous sobriety, one feels. Ballou (wearing bedroom slippers) is larger and louder, his voice a just-woken-up bass. GodCity is his studio, and it was here that No Heroes was recorded and mixed. “This record is pretty much the reason why I got into recording in the first place. We’ve always had a really strong DIY drive in the band, not so much as part of some ethic but out of necessity, from being such control freaks as people. I’ve been working for 10 years to get my abilities up to a level where I can make the best-sounding Converge record yet and still maintain control over all the details.”
Part of the particular atmosphere surrounding Converge arises from the in-house flavor of their productions. As Ballou takes care of the recording, so Bannon does all the artwork. The image on the cover of No Heroes is a fair example: a dove, wings spread, its body a Rorschach blot of darkness while its pinions flare whitely against a saturated background of reds and grays. Pure/soiled, angelic/demonic, embracing/rejecting — the binaries multiply, and they seem to conduct you into the emotional implosion of the band’s sound. Bannon has worked hard to evolve and maintain a graphic identity for Converge: “I’ve never been a fan of bands who have a huge shift in logo or visual feel. Like, the first few Metallica records — perfect. But then Load. . . ! Or look at Slayer: some of the greatest album covers of all time, but then Diabolus in Musica comes out — which was also a musical shift — and it’s like, what the fuck just happened?”
As abstract and extreme as they can be, this sense of not wanting to break the connection is strong with Converge — perhaps the most potent legacy of their years in Boston hardcore. “I’d like to play music that’s not Converge,” Ballou says, “but it’s difficult. If you’ve grown up like we have, in this scene, where right in front of you you’ve got this fanatical audience that’s going wild, it’s like instant gratification, and it’s hard to leave that behind. Like, when we do a song that’s a little more toned down or has a little more nuance and the audience isn’t reacting in the same way — to us it feels like we’re doing something wrong.” Bannon adds, “I remember the first few times we played ‘Jane Doe’ [the 12-minute title track from their 2001 album] live: that felt really weird. You just feel the eyes on you, and you can’t really tell if you’re communicating well as a musical unit until the end of the song, whereas with songs that are like a minute and a half long, straight at your head, you feel it like a freight train.”
Ballou took three months off from recording other bands to write No Heroes, which also features the vocals of Jonah Jenkins (Raw Radar War, ex–Only Living Witness) on one track. “I pretty much don’t really hang out with people. Also, correlating with the beginning of the writing period for this record I split up with my girlfriend, and she was the person I would spend time with. And VH1 Metal Month was on. So I had no girlfriend, nothing to do, and there was heavy metal on TV 24 hours a day. That’s how this record got written.” And there’s your Converge metaphor: the entire history of metal, beamed into an isolation from which it will emerge compressed, sharpened, a weapon against the world.