I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
I’ve made fun of Epitaph in the past. But besides Converge, some really good bands and artists call Epitaph and its subsidiaries home these days, and the label has even released a classic album by a band or two in the past: Settle (duh), Rancid, Busdriver, The Blood Brothers and Refused (although both are defunct), Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds/Grinderman, Tom Waits, Aesop Rock, Rancid – see, it’s not the wasteland I made it out to be. Converge continues the pattern of growth from the simplistic hardcore/punk roots from which Epitaph sprung, and stretches out into one of the best progressive hardcore/metal records I’ve ever heard.
Can you believe that Converge formed in 1991? That’s an insanely long time ago, especially in music terms, and even more astounding when you consider the volatility and impermanence of ever-changing lineups and entities in the hardcore community. After a few seven-inches – the staple of the genre – and compilation appearances, Converge released their first album, Halo in a Haystack in 1994. They’ve remained one of the most consistent and innovative bands within the genre over the years, releasing punk-metal masterpieces Jane Doe and You Fail Me, rightfully classics. You’ll find Jane Doe’s titular visage inked on various body parts of the most dedicated Converge fans.
Fifteen years have passed since Halo, and it’s crazy to think that Converge is still as relevant as they are, let alone how they find the innovative drive to push the boundaries of their brutal sound. And yet that’s exactly what they do on Axe to Fall, where their melding of styles results in one of the most exciting hardcore albums released in recent memory. In fact, I’d compare it favorably to Refused’s 1998 gamechanger The Shape of Punk to Come. How can you not? And although Converge doesn’t employ the synthesizer like Refused, who did so liberally and innovatively, I’d certainly place the two records in close proximity when cataloging the history of hardcore.
I should remind you that I say all this with much less exposure to this style of music than I really should have. The past couple years have really witnessed my tentative immersion into the genre with the help of my brother Evan, and I get more and more excited with each new listen. Axe to Fall clearly follows suit. “Dark Horse” gallops (d’oh!) out of the gate with a fury unmatched by most bands, its guitars strangled and trampled under the rhythm. Oh don’t worry – they get back up and blaze through a killer 5/4 lead before the throat-shredding vocals bluster into the mix. And the vocals are great – the biggest sticking point for my enjoyment of a hardcore band is always the vocals, but Jacob Bannon’s harsh bark is much more palatable than the vast majority. At times he’s cloaked in mild distortion as well. And “bark” is the best descriptor – he sounds pissed. Big time. And with song titles favoring shock images of death and decay, that anger is clearly pointed outward, at the establishment, or at … other stuff. (The “establishment” is an easy common point of contention among the fast and the loud.) Songs like “Reap What You Sow,” “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast,” “Slave Driver,” and, shocker, “Wretched World” are all you really need to know about Converge’s intentions – the lyrics themselves are nigh on indecipherable.
The album is paced well too – the quick blasts, most lasting anywhere from 1:40 to 2:50, are bunched together in pods, broken up by longer, sludge-metal screes. What causes this album to rise to the upper levels of the hardcore pantheon is the diversity in song structure throughout. (Don’t get me wrong, the punk blitzkriegs are amazing regardless.) But when the killer “Effigy” morphs into the slow grind of “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast,” you know you’re in for something a bit more unusual. The transitions pay off throughout, as “Wishing Well” mixes it up with “Damages,” and the brutal “Cutter” and “Slave Driver” butt heads with perhaps the strangest cut on the album, the Tom Waits-on-steroids piano dirge “Cruel Bloom,” sung by Neurosis’ Steve Von Till. The seven-minute bloodbath “Wretched World” closes the album on an uneasy and grim note, as Converge’s enemies are laid to waste in their wake, the bodies gruesome reminders of the band’s power upon their departure.
Listening to this album again (this is my second pass at it – I’d listened to it a few times closer to its initial release), I was disappointed at the reminder that this was a 2009 release – I’d have loved to have placed this on my soon-to-be-published end-of-year best-of list. But it’s not to be – that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Axe to Fall is aggressive, hostile, malevolent, and intense. But it also trades in enough instrumental acrobatics and dynamic shifts to keep it fresh throughout its runtime. It’s nothing if not exciting – yeah, that’s the perfect word for it.
RIYL: (early) Cave In, Pantera, Unsane