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by Chris Gramlich (Exclaim! Magazine)
It never ceases to amaze me how the things we initially dismiss, overlook, don’t notice can become the most important and meaningful to us and our lives.
The first time I saw Converge was in 1996 with Deadguy, Coalesce and a number of other bands whose names are now lost to memory in a Legion Hall in a rundown part of Buffalo, NY. I’d like to say they changed my life that night but they didn’t — not that night, anyway. However, there was something about the way their rail-thin singer (Jacob Bannon) threw himself without regard into his performance, and the audience, and glimpses of the more than then-typical Victory Records mosh in their music that spoke of things to come. If you told me that band (Converge, I would discover later while buying Deadguy merch) would become one of the most important to not only myself but to aggressive music and its various scenes and factions, I would have cracked a smile, at the very least. Funny, how things turn out.
Formed in the winter of 1990 in Boston, MA, during the rise and subsequent fall of the legendary Boston hardcore scene, Converge are unarguably one of the most important bands in the history of aggressive music. Through numerous line-up changes (the band are currently comprised of vocalist/visual design terrorist Jacob Bannon, drummer Ben Koller, guitarist/back-up vocalist Kurt Ballou and bassist/back-up vocalist Nate Newton), musical trends (mosh, tech, guys crying and wearing make-up, ’80s thrash revival) and the coming and going of more “the next great thing” than I care to recall, Converge have established themselves as leaders in the aggressive music underground.
It seems redundant to use the word “landmark” when discussing their musical canon, as almost every album is genre-defining, but Converge’s run is unparalleled. Releases such as Petitioning the Empty Sky (1997), When Forever Comes Crashing (1998), Jane Doe (2001), You Fail Me (2004) and No Heroes (2006) have established Converge as trendsetters and innovators, setting new standards in hardcore and metal with each release. These records have evolved the band (from their thrash-inspired, hardcore-drenched beginnings to slower, more ominous and atmospheric work to all-out Tsunami-of-hostility hell-bent on levelling creation) and produced new waves of followers and emulators with each successive work. Honestly, has there been a band more influential on past and present “successful” metal/hardcore acts as unaccredited? It’s true: integrity has its price.
After nearly 20 years, such a glorious run of releases and a live show that’s gone from flailing kids flailing against kids to legendary exorcism for both band and audience — watch the pit during “The Saddest Day” and tell me it’s not the closest thing to a near-religious experience atheists will ever have — Converge could be forgiven for releasing an endeavour that was simply good, okay, just maintaining their status quo. After all, it’s much easier to win the title than retain it, and even the greats slip from time to time. Axe To Fall (Converge’s third release for indie institution Epitaph Records), however, is no such relapse.
True to themselves and their art, as always, no matter the cost, Axe To Fall continues to push relentlessly forward, much like a shark that needs to always keep swimming to survive. Where No Heroes was a refinement and broadening of hostilities declared on previous assaults such as Jane Doe, Axe To Fall returns to the more AmRep-inspired noisecore abrasions of You Fail Me while also updating and making vital the thrash influences that defined earlier Converge efforts (Caring and Killing, Petitioning the Empty Sky) and retaining the hardcore hostilities and frantic pace so vital to their foundation. Of course, the experimental anguish and pleading for salvation are no mere sharpening of past knives but yet another leap forward in an existence full of them.
From frenetic, frantic opening track “Dark Horse,” which is a downhill avalanche of ferocity culminating in one of the heaviest riffs Converge have ever laid listeners to waste with, to “Worms Will Feed,” an ominous exploration that ebbs and flows, building upon crashing then retreating waves of music and lyrical condemnations (“the worms will find a way, the rats will find a way”), to the barely restrained chaos of “Losing Battle” and Axe To Fall’s sanguine, beautiful, climatic seven-minute-plus dénouement, “Wretched Word,” Axe To Fall isn’t just another mere “release” or record from spoiled kids discovering metal and crying about how difficult life is in the suburbs. Axe To Fall is a nearly two-decade culmination of hard roads travelled and unwanted, but necessary, lessons learned, of prayers for salvation lost to the wind and too-fleeting nights where everything was still, if only for a moment, consumed by morning’s inevitable advance, of crushing defeats and the realization that the war only ends when we do, and it’s not one we can win, merely endure.
Once again recorded by Converge’s resident engineering genius Kurt Ballou, whose God City Recording Studios has become the Mecca for aggressive music’s elite to congregate at for assistance realizing their sonic sermons (from Trap Them and Genghis Tron to Torche and Buried Inside), Axe To Fall is as sonically dense a tapestry and punishing a release as Converge have ever conceived, once again perfectly echoing musically Bannon’s heart-ripped-out-of-chest-but-still-beating lyrics. It’s the summation of experiences learned working on records such as No Heroes and You Fail Me, also recorded by Ballou at God City, and it surpasses them.
But even while Converge and Axe To Fall stand alone — as Bannon is so fond of saying live: “we’re born into this world alone, and we die alone, so make your mark while you’re here” — they’ve never forgotten the core values of the hardcore scene they were raised in, and raised others on: community. Axe To Fall is Converge’s most collaborative effort to date, even while paradoxically sounding as focused as ever. Axe To Fall features the likes of John Pettibone (Undertow, Himsa), Ulf Cederlund (Entombed, Disfear), Cave In’s Steve Brodsky, Adam McGrath and J.R. Connors, F. Sean Martin (Hatebreed), George Hirsch (Blacklisted) and Genghis Tron’s Mookie Singerman, Hamilton Jordan and Michael Sochynsky, amongst others, contributing to its dense sonic soundscapes. Even Steve Von Till (of legendary star destroyers Neurosis) graces the record on “Cruel Bloom,” an ignoring of musical confines that sounds akin to something Tom Waits and Mr. Bungle might concoct if trapped in a watering hole on the fringes of Purgatory right before the end-time hit.
Something Bannon said to me years ago during our very first interview has stuck with me ever since: that hardcore needs to be about something more than bad poetry and Slayer riffs. And that search for and desire to be something more have defined Converge since their inception, and continue to propel them and their art ever-forward. Through sheer hard work, perseverance and an unwavering commitment to artistic integrity Converge have risen from humble beginnings to become that mercurial and so very rare “something more.” Axe To Fall continues their reign, long may it last.