Friday, February 15, 2013

Day Forty-Four: Converge - Axe to Fall


 Deathwish Inc. ■ DWI98

Released October 20, 2009

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Kurt Ballou
Mastered by Alan Douches




Side One:Side Two:
  1. Dark Horse
  2. Reap What You Sow
  3. Axe to Fall
  4. Effigy
  5. Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast
  6. Wishing Well
  7. Damages
  1. Losing Battle
  2. Dead Beat
  3. Cutter
  4. Slave Driver
  5. Cruel Bloom
  6. Wretched World
I've always been wary of the "hardcore" scene, such as it has been described and defined for the last, oh, decade and a half. What once was Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and D.O.A. was now something else entirely--something that was often difficult to relate to the music that first bore the name. Hardcore at this time was also plagued with clichés readily pointed out--the inevitable breakdowns, where the pace slowed and the riffs chugged and boomed to encourage the sense that the bottom had dropped out and all hell had broken loose, which is a difficult thing to do constantly to any real effect. At the same time, I didn't listen to many of those bands in any detail, either. But it meant that when the name Converge was mentioned, I tended to leave them to their fans, stuck a bit in my own metal pseudo-elitism. I would periodically hear of them in a tone of reverence even from those who were more active in their criticism of this new "hardcore", which I filed away in the back of my mind and left be for some time.

It wasn't until I, for some reason, had "Dark Horse" dumped in my lap that my ears perks quite suddenly. I didn't care what this was "supposed" to be according to other people--this sounded great. I actually made a trip out to a semi-distant Borders (the source, thanks to my then-employee discount, of much of my music at the time) to pick up a copy of this very album, Axe to Fall on CD. I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I ever thought, no longer left with the impression that most of the bands associated gave me--the feeling of enthusiastic but amateurish attempts to work songs into territory that was "cool", as most clearly defined by the idea of "breakdowns". Converge not only didn't break down, they didn't seem to have any of the lumps or uneven points that came along with bands that seemed to really, really want to recreate their favourite sounds, but make them their own.

I picked up their earliest albums as I ran across them, and eventually even filled out most of the gaps that came between those and Axe to Fall as time went on. About a month ago, I picked up All We Love We Leave Behind, their latest album (about three months after it was released). This record, though, I found on one of my excursions into the record stores that are (not all that) close to where I live now. I was casually flipping through the metal records and saw the distinctive cover, and the small sticker in the corner that said "Yellow Vinyl". I'm nothing if not a sucker for picking up an album I already like when I'm told it's on coloured vinyl--for good or ill, that often gets me immediately. Because it was used (if briefly, or perhaps even not much at all), it was in an open sleeve. When I saw this bright, radioactive, translucent colour, I knew I was going home with it regardless--and so I did. Because it came around in the middle of my transition between homes, I didn't get much chance to spin it. Even more so, I was spending most of my time at my parents' house, as they lived in the area I've since moved into, and it allowed me to establish myself job-wise while I worked out the living end of things--and playing Converge in a home that you know isn't going to appreciate it, well, it just tends to seem rude.

The most amusing review I ever read of the album was one that suggested that the first time you listened to the album, "Dark Horse" might make you feel that you've suffered a mis-mastered CD, or some sort of malfunction in your player, one that has caused it to play a good bit too fast. And that's not unfair, really: Ben Koller's drum intro seems like it's trying to prove itself to those nearby--"I'm fast, guys, I swear!" only it has the unsubtle tinge of actually being not just fast but clean and tight, contrasted especially with the distorted wobble of absurdly low (downtuning is nearly endemic in metal or metal-influenced musicians) bass from Nate Newton. A single note rings out from Kurt Ballou's guitar, his pick slides back down the neck, and then his fingers fly. "Dark Horse" has one of my favourite-ever heavy riffs, a reasonably high-pitched, tremolo-picked flurry of fingers that seem to be finding the strings beneath them too hot to stay at any point for more than a moment, trying leaps as large as they can to prevent too severe a hot "foot". Jacob Bannon's vocals are shouted at a seeming distance, somewhat hidden in the mix as is not unusual for much of heavier music, but actually relatively clear: "For all those born to serve/And all those that chose to hide/Let their sadness be our blessing/Let their losses lead the way", and then Kurt works up to a precarious precipice, teetering and then falling off--but not to anything like a breakdown, unless one were to forget that these typically imply a slowed pace. Now roaring, Bannon continues ("The dark horse will one day come/To free the light from all of us"), as Koller pummels the bass kicks in rapid succession. The band then sounds like the sheer power and energy of their work is trying desperately to make a u-turn back to the initial riff without slowing any or at all--there's a short moment of scattered, slightly slowed guitar, like the beast is braking just enough to make that turn, and then they are off into that lightning run again. After the chorus--the roaring and double-kick--plays a second time, the pace actually does slow, Koller mostly hitting a steady 1,2,34 on the hi-hat, the 1s punctuated with a chord from Newton's bass and Koller's kick, Ballou's guitar at only double that speed, high and jagged, slashing up and down in a zig-zag that is all peaks and valleys and no trips toward them. Koller's snares and bass and Ballou's guitars gradually work the song back upward, until a massive moment of breakdown that doesn't let up the energy or force of the song to this point dissipate in service of a "moment" for the audience: it's the crush of the song itself manifest, not a contrivance.

If you aren't listening carefully or paying attention, the whinging feedback of Ballou's guitar as it bleeds into "Reap What You Sow" might not clearly delineate the move into another song, even though the rapid hi-hat tapping of Koller suggests a sort of count-off. When Ballou's riffs come in, it's a sudden onslaught, lurching forward and balanced or propped by a rapid series of all snare hits from Koller--this is not a common sound in this kind of music, and does belie the origins in the hardcore punk segment of music, less brutal aggression of extreme metal and more the impassioned anger of hardcore punk. On an album loaded with guests, the first makes his appearance here: Sean Martin, briefly in Hatebreed, takes on the lead guitar part and backing vocals. A lovely tom fill from Koller spins the song into the verse where Martin's guitar makes its voice heard, racing along a thin vein beneath Jacob's roar, which sounds here--as in most places--like someone shouting full-bore into cupped hands around a microphone (no small wonder this is how he is most often seen performing). The song is most fascinating because it doesn't seem to relate strongly to any familiar structure at all: the initial riff and snare hits suggest something that is being held just barely in check, not the beginning of a song, and the way it races under Martin's lead after that feels normal until it's broken into more distinct strikes, Koller's drums trying to slow the juggernaut down as the guitars rise in pitch, pushing against the attempted slowdown. And then the lead falls down in a smooth arc back into the racing lead--which again is left to fight against the drums' attempt to slow things down. A brief pause for a blur of otherwise solo, steady snare hits turns the song to a gallop that features Martin's solo. A final pummeling assault that gradually gains the emphasis of relentless double kicks, roaring from Martin and Bannon and the screeching encouragement of guitars turns again to squeals of feedback.

Interestingly, the feedback that opens "Axe to Fall" is not of the kind that steamed out at the end of "Reap What You Sow", but is instead the anticipatory kind that projects a just-turned-on amp, which lasts less than a moment before everyone follows the deliberately separated syllables of Bannon's words: "Wai-ting for the axe to fall/Wai-ting for the axe to fall", Koller's drums again coming out at the end like brakes on the frenzied guitar. Ballou turns in a more subtle feat of finger-dancing, a lower, less apparent series of fretboard histrionics. Experiencing the first distinct tempo shift, the latter half of "Axe to Fall" is the closest to an actual breakdown the album experiences, but it doesn't trade the rough edges of violence present previously for clarity and rhythmic emphasis.

"Effigy" brings in the work of Cave-In (recorded five years prior, before their hiatus began--one that ended the year this album was released), the band named somewhat strangely for a Codeine song. While Cave-In were at the end of their more accessible "space rock" phase that included a major label appearance, it was quickly turned aside for a return to their post-hardcore/metalcore roots when this was recorded, and it shows. J.R. Connors throws a more snare-oriented drumming style at the bass of the band, while Steve Brodsky and Adam McGrath use a more clean (but still appropriate) style to burn out blistering leads over the throaty yells of Bannon.

A few moments in the album are distinctly different from the short-lived (consistently under three minutes, occasionally under two) style that defines much of hardcore, and "Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast" is the first of these. A slightly dissonant but intensely distorted guitar riff plays at what now feels like a ponderous pace, creeping along to a sharpened peak, hanging and holding with threat and warning. Holding at the last, Koller, Newton, and Bannon join Ballou for a now meaty, crunchy version of the same: the pace has not changed, but now each note is bearing the weight of bass and drums behind it, Bannon's voice the only thing not so clearly aligned with the otherwise magnetic thrum of that rhythm. Lingering distortion marks the first clear trade in vocals: taking on a rather Neurosis-style vocal, Ballou howls over flams from Koller, even and slowed. Between his lines, they all pound out a rhythmic forward movement, the second line followed by Newton, Ballou, and Bannon all expelling the words of the title in unison, pausing after each as no word is swallowed or given only half an effort. The sludge/doom sound is let free after this, Ballou's guitar suddenly almost clean, pretty and melodic, but the pounding of toms from Koller turns them creepy, as Ballou and Bannon begin to whisper/sing (!) quietly: "The worms will find a way/The rats will find a way..." Ballou's distortion is unleashed, as Bannon's voice grows to its dry shout, and Ballou's follows it shortly, the tension building and building into a final few strikes that Koller drums into a brief continuation, repeating this loop as if to prolong things, before it all turns slowly downward in pitch.

I don't know how Ballou creates the guitar sound he does to open "Wishing Well", but I've heard it a few other times, and it's a great sound: a quavering, feedback-laden sustain, one that it appears can't be completely steadied as it twists around itself. Allowed to play it in isolation, he is suddenly joined by Koller's tension building snare hits, before a bass-thumping punk-style rhythm sets the song off. Former Entombed and current Disfear (a band which is currently fronted by Tomas Lindberg from At the Gates) guitarist Ulf "Uffe" Cederlund raises sheets of tremolo-picked wash over the throbbing toms of Koller, and joins Bannon for the chorus with his own voice.

Dry, palm-muted, unusually calm riffing only periodically accentuated by a sudden thrum of bass and an unintrusive drum beat mark the opening of "Damages", implying a continuation of the kind of pace that typified "Worms Will Feed". Koller starts the song off though, and Ballou's briefly freed strings are turned to aggressive, more open, chunkier but still muted riffing, now anchored with the steady swinging strokes of bass on similar notes. An icing of higher, semi-harmonic tones branches out over it, and we're left with a song that actually falls somewhere in the middle of previous tempos. Tim "Trivikrama Dasa" Cohen takes on lead guitar duty, and the feel is that of a machinistic deliberation, tempered only by the vocals of Bannon through the beginning, and those of Ballou when the song becomes a more low-end chugging toward the end, belching black smoke and menace, despite the decreased tempo. Dasa's lead slips and slides and squeals over the final moments of the song, and of Side One, a final sludge of thudding riffs and drumming pounding out to the final note and only the brief ring of feedback.

"Losing Battle" lets Koller really shine with a complicated and interesting, shifting and rapid drum pattern, Ballou's riffs grinding in the front but not matching the interesting drumming Koller lets loose, even when it changes briefly to a simpler and then a more rapid but still comparatively simple one (largely blast beats--snare-bass-snare-bass). Bannon snarls over the top ("Nothing left to lose") and Ballou occasionally answers ("When I'm losing you"), the song charging ever-forward, before the final refrain of Bannon ends it: "Losing the battle/Losing the war", and they crunch out two riffs to bring it to a dead stop.

There's a hint of the very opening of "Dark Horse" at the start of "Dead Beat" in Koller's frantic drumming, but Ballou's almost chiming lead gives the lie to that notion. A brief moment of martial drumming (albeit that of troops that must be related to Barry Allen) transitions the song into its vocal portion, where Bannon's voice is unusually melodic, calling to mind some weird amalgamation of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi--the shout of MacKaye, the melody of Picciotto (all else aside, it's not a mystery why his first band was considered emotive hardcore), with an actual sound that falls somewhere between them, too. Ballou's guitar is melodic, too, and less abrasive than previously. When Koller catches them up in his snares (heh!), it's only to throw them into the heat of Bannon's shouts and the swirling aggression of more meaty riffing, the higher pitches back to dissonance and pierce. It's very subtle when it slips back to the more melodic approach on both their parts, though--almost unnoticeable.

With a guest only on backing vocals (a la "Axe to Fall" earlier), "Cutter" is from the point of view of someone who would be described as exactly that, with the words simple and to the point, describing the emotions that actually motivate this behaviour in empathetic but unapologetic terms, not falling into the simple trap of finding it a dangerously stupid act so much as the reaction of someone unsure what else to do to find relief. The rumble of riffing is largely arranged around kick-heavy drumming from Koller, Bannon's voice describing the thoughts behind cutting as John Pettibone growls "No way out", Ballou allowing for thrashy flurries of squealing lead--not in Slayer territory of atonality, but brief and tight. "One way down/No way out" Pettibone shouts as the song rockets forward to its end.

The last purely Converge track, "Slave Driver" has a white noise of distorted guitar that manages to make the impossible possible: because he's the only one playing an instrument oriented around melody, Newton's bass is suddenly more apparent, rumbling out both the melody and deep, thumping accent to Koller's drumbeat, though a low guitar comes along with him (mixed just below his bass, though, just fattening the sound). Bannon sings in his old school hardcore voice briefly, even, which only serves to make the cries of "No longer feel anyone/No longer fear anything" that much more frighteningly nihilistic and depressed. The song accelerates to and end of repeated abbreviation: "No longer feel/No longer fear!"

Quite unexpectedly, piano and acoustic guitar (Ballou in both cases) open "Cruel Bloom", the first voice we hear actually that of Steve Von Till of Neurosis, effecting his best warm and twisty post-Asylum (records, not mental institution) Tom Waits. The howling of electric guitar works its way in until it most clearly overlays the choral vocals of Von Till with The Rodeo, Chris Taylor, and Aimee Argote: "Lifelong victims pound and claw at the ground/Searching for a way out of their skin/Writhe in the cruel bloom". It's actually a rather pretty, though somber and dark chorus, especially with the emotive guitar punctuating their words. When Koller and Newton join after this chorus, the sense of Tom Waits (or a severely mutated version of Neurosis that eschews their more long-winded and progressive elements) is exaggerated. Newton's bass is clean, thumping to the deliberate pace of simple 4/4 patterns from Koller. It's almost like a weighed down, depressed form of Dead Man's Bones--just to make a completely useless comparison, as that band is not exactly a familiar one to most. Von Till holds the second repetition of "Bloom" alone, his voice gaining the grit that marks the heavier side of Neurosis, as Ballou comes crashing down¹ with a roar of distorted guitar. Von Till's voice becomes its own hoarse howl, the guitar's own turning instead to a throaty wail. A slow of the crunchy riff and the wailing guitar extended end the song on a hanging note.

Continuing the peculiarities of the album for this band (some silly folk felt these two tracks should have been left off), "Wretched World" is largely contorted by J.R. Connors (of Cave-In) and Brad Fickeisen (of The Red Chord) on drums, Hamilton Jordan, Mookie Singerman, and Michael Sochynsky (all of Genghis Tron, on guitars, vocals and keyboard, and keyboard respectively). Chiming distorted harmonics act as a sort of clock announcing the hour throughout (it's actually quite a neat sound and a nice effect). Electronically distorted voices murmur in the background, Newton's bass allowed to ring heavily, before beginning to slide methodically around. Forlorn, sliding guitars wander the background, the drums only entering at the two minute mark, Singerman's voice coming in with the nasal tinge of Mastodon's cleaner ones (I'd say Brent Hinds' voice if pressed). It's a ponderous song, the drums largely toms pounding out large, emphatic beats. The advent of distorted guitars takes four minutes, but they are not used for aggression so much as the washing reverberation that distortion brings when allowed to ring out. Losing out to the chiming harmonics, Bannon's voice enters and roars out only briefly alongside Singerman's, the riffs now allowed to hang in the air, the song slowly fading away more completely to just the chiming harmonics, until it all falls to sustained keyboard, the holding noise of distortion and a slow fade.

The most important aspect of a metal band is not the simple obvious things--aggression, speed, the ability to "mosh" to it, so on. Of course, it may be for some people, but if those are the only necessary factors for quality, almost anything categorized as such qualifies, and some quality material is lost. But then, I suppose the same could be argued for my philosophy. In any case, some bands are labeled consistent with a sort of half-hearted but sincere thumbs up: a good four-out-of-five slapped on and a day called, whenever they release a new album. There are strong bands in this category, and then there are bands in all the wild branches of metal and metal-esque music that are something else. I can call to mind a few that are thought of this way, but those thumbs ups aren't half-hearted, and the fours turn to fives, and the consistency is not a solid mark, it's an outstanding one. Converge has had this reputation almost without exception for the entirety of their career. There's the sense that their albums aren't just well-written, well-performed sets of songs tossed out as they reach a tipping point in number or total length--the sense that, instead, they are worked and refined, until even the breakneck paced blasts of hardcore aggression themselves feel like thoughtful choices, not simple repetitions.

The appeal of Converge lies in their ability to create music recognizable as this new breed of hardcore (tinged with metal, in almost every case), but that surprises and innovates as it does so. The rhythms, the patterns and structures of the songs: they are fascinating when broken down, because they are so atypical. Even at an auditory "glance", too, there's a different feeling to these than comes from a lot of rather ho-hum material released under this banner.

Maybe it's the influence of engineering and production talent in Ballou guiding the group musically. Maybe it's the influence of art school graduate Jacob Bannon in fashioning lyrics that may tread similar ground but manage to avoid cliché or clumsiness--as well as stunningly effective and striking artwork that has graced their work from the beginning. It's stylistically striking and distinct, like that of Baroness's John Dyer-Baizley, but more gritty and reminiscent of graffiti or screenprinting (which I think does factor into his method), managing to feel well thought out, designed and carefully articulated despite the immediate impressions of "simple" techniques. The cover to Axe to Fall and its colour scheme, simple and limited in palette, are appropriate and clear, and, despite their dark tenor, quite beautiful. Opening a gatefold of Bannon art is breath-taking in that real sense, as may be even better illustrated by the monochrome cover of All We Love We Leave Behind, which becomes vibrant and overwhelming when opened.

I've found that Converge deserves their reputation as not just consistent but consistently excellent, though, like much of metal, they require a willingness to be patient and listen carefully, to hear the way that the sounds are married into what may at first sound like a raging, rabid frenzy of untamed aggression. Their music may, in fact, be somewhat more impenetrable for the fact that it has left behind few of its roots in the barked, abrasive stylings of hardcore--even when it was punk, much of it fit this rubric. But it's worth doing.


  • Next Up: Elvis Costello and the Attractions - Armed Forces


¹I'mt not going to pretend it's incredibly clever, but this is a subtle nod to an early Converge album, and I feel like that won't be apparent unless I point it out. Which doesn't reflect well, of course, but there it is.
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