The Boston hardcore band Converge are nearing the 25-year mark, though you might not guess it from the manic energy crammed into it their excellent eighth album, All We Love We Leave Behind. If you go beyond the amped, break-neck intensity and listen to the compositions, it becomes clearer: You don't just show up and write songs like this.
The brilliant hardcore band Converge have been around a long time, though you might not guess it from the manic energy crammed into their eighth album, All We Love We Leave Behind. If you go beyond the amped, break-neck intensity and listen to the compositions, it becomes clear the Boston band is nearing the 25-year mark: You don't just show up and write songs like this.
One of the quartet's not-so-secret weapons is Kurt Ballou, the guitarist (and backing vocalist, bassist, keyboardist, etc.), who happens to be one of the most well-regarded engineers in heavy music and an endless tinkerer who'd build a snare from scratch if it meant getting the sound he needed. The central core of vocalist/in-house artist Jacob Bannon and Ballou-- along with bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller, who both joined in 1999-- have been together long enough to know each other very well, and to play almost entirely to their own strengths. As such, there's never a dull moment across AWLWLB's 38 minutes. It's all peaks.
The record is the logical followup to 2009's Axe to Fall, my favorite record that year. Axe included a large supporting cast of friends and fellow travelers from Cave In, Disfear, Genghis Tron, the Red Chord, and Neurosis. It ended with a seven-minute song that seemed to include them all. When I spoke with Converge frontman Jacob Bannon a few weeks ago about AWLWLB, he said Axe to Fall had been the "collaborative concept taken to the extreme." This time, it's just the band and the watchful ear of Ballou. As Bannon put it, "There's no artificial distortion, triggers, or Auto-Tune on this album. It's all organic, it's real sounds that capture the way the band performs live."
From opener (and first single) "Aimless Arrow" onward, the music here is mostly fast, compact, and coiled. That's Converge in general, but they've distilled the elements to even tauter extremes this time. The technical mastery is mind-blowing, as is the way they manage to squeeze in brutal melodies and hooks. The vocal lines seem to be woven into the guitars, to which they've also added a bluesier feel, a detail that reminds me of the classic post-Negative Approach Touch and Go band Laughing Hyenas-- or even the Jesus Lizard. It's a streamlined, live-sounding collection that can feel like one giant kick to the head. But they know when to give, take, and plop in a slow-grind blues riff. Tracks overlap and echo. When they slow things down to a momentary crawl with the album's longest song, the five-minute doom ballad "Coral Blue", it's like a chair's been pulled out from behind you. You get that in the middle of the two-minute "Empty on the Inside" as well as the instrumental "Precipice", an interstitial piece with piano, clean guitars, psychedelic soloing guitars, and deep-factory/chain-gang percussion. "All We Love We Leave Behind" picks all of that up gorgeously.
As overwhelming as AWLWLB may be on first listen, it's really not all speed. There's a thing people say about young professional quarterbacks, about how they need experience before the game "slows down." You get that on this album, too. In my interview with Bannon, he said: "I feel that the current generation of listeners of heavy music are progressing a bit past their gateway bands and are digging deeper than they used to and understanding more abrasive and complex music and art. It's like being around an unfamiliar language long enough that it eventually begins to make sense." I agree with this, and it's the reason why Converge are a band with plenty of fans who weren't close to being born when the band formed in 1990.
Of course, there's plenty for older audiences, too-- aging, death, decisions, punk as a way of life, and the way these things preoccupy you when you go past 30 are largely what this album is about. (It all opens with "Aimless Arrow"'s "To live the life you want/ You've abandoned those in need"). Bannon describes the grizzled two-minute anthem "Shame in the Way" as a song about "feeling fragmented from the traditional concept of family." He adds, "As I've gotten older, I've worked on mending the things I can, while being conscious of the things I can't repair." You get this on the genuinely moving title track, too. Bannon calls it "an open letter to the things that I feel I've left behind in order to pursue an artistic and musical direction in my life." He says it was inspired in part by the death of his beloved dog, Anna Belle, but there's a lot more than that here: It's a classic hardcore anthem, one that looks at the decision to live a life in a particular way, and it might bring you to tears if you hear it right. Really, more than the past couple of Converge albums, AWLWLB feels like a hardcore record.
We live in a period of compression, where there's more stimulation and less time for reflection-- but we're also continually presented with a repackaged, slightly off past. Nostalgia is music's biggest seller, it seems. The thing is, underground bands that formed in 1990 are often getting back together in 2012 for reunion tours, not eighth albums. The irony of the title, of course, is that Converge are also a lesson in not leaving behind what matters. "Predatory Glow" ends the record with the lines: "Let the future know/ I won't be there tomorrow/ Let the past know/ I gave them my all/ I'm aching for an end/ Grown thinner every day/ I bow down to you/ Extinguished youth." When I asked about the song, Bannon explained: "I am far from an 'old' person in human terms, however I've spent over half my life immersed in the punk rock and hardcore community. I am not wholly defined by that as a person, but it is something that has been part of me for a long time."
And it will be, until he dies. AWLWLB is an example of building on and mastering the music you loved when you were younger-- something that became more than music, ultimately-- so that it has a chance to grow old with you without becoming any less vital.