When people talk about “heavy music” in a mainstream sense, they tend to have a blackout from the ’90s onwards. Not since Metallica’s genre and era-defining Black Album in 1991 have the heavier genres been as popular — not until a watered down version called nu-metal appeared half a decade later at least — but it was also a “passing of the torch” moment, as Nirvana’s Nevermind was only a month away from release.
It seems crazy to think that about in 2017, but Converge were just starting out during this monumental shift in alt-rock music. The core duo of Jacob Bannon (vocals) and Kurt Ballou (Guitar) started making music together in 1990 in Salem, Massachusetts (how appropriate) where the latter to this day runs his GodCity Recording Studio, just outside of Boston, the band’s eventual home. Post-Nevermind, the freaks got in, which while it had varying and wide-ranging results, did inject a shot in the arm to punk rock’s fledgling underground community. An entire network of genres and offshoots were born in the ‘90s due to the renewed interest, including several of what are now considered subgenres of rock — emo, post-hardcore and metalcore.
None of these are particularly useful genre tags, and for most of them, the bands associated almost always wish to disassociate themselves anyway. Converge, for instance, were beneficiaries of the supposed “metalcore” name that was thrown around — in Boston especially — with other notable names like Cave In and Isis also finding success in that niche. Even during their ‘90s material, Converge were a slippery beast, refusing to define themselves beyond the broad term of “punk,” and drawing from a range of influences from bands like Rites Of Spring and Antioch Arrow right through to Slayer.
It would take a full decade for Converge to fully form into the band we know now featuring bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller and really achieve their full potential, ironically around the same time that nu-metal was beginning to peter out. With the arrival of Jane Doe on September 4, 2001, Converge announced themselves with all the nervous energy that the tragic event of 9/11 in American exactly one week later would realize.
By the time of their follow-up, 2004’s You Fail Me, the band had asserted themselves as the pioneers of the genre we know them for today. In the ensuing years, they have only solidified that position with three great-to-excellent ranging records, as they consistently try to keep their by now well-defined sound fresh, never relinquishing their beating-heart-covered-in-nails sound. There aren’t many bands out their who have managed to consistently put out such inventive and original music, especially in a genre that borrows a lot, for over 20 years. And yet, with their new album The Dusk In Us, out today, they have managed to better themselves once again.
Where so many bands would have given up long ago, Converge have proven once again why they are considered the gold standard, why their fans and website allude to those fans as a “cult,” and why they’re respected to the point that they transcend simple hardcore punk or metal and exist on the fringes of a wider consciousness within indie music. On The Dusk In Us, their ninth full-length, they have managed to push their extreme sound forward once again, while also remaining palatable and gesturing back toward their career as a whole up to now.
Their latest album is, in fact, the cleanest sounding of their oeuvre, which may sound a bit strange to anyone familiar with Converge. This isn’t to say The Dusk In Us isn’t heavy — in places, it features some of their noisiest moments to date — but it does mean two distinct things. First, Kurt Ballou’s production, which seems to get better and better every year and most notably this year gave Chelsea Wolfe’s Hiss Spun a depth she hadn’t been able to explore previously, and second, Jacob Bannon’s vocals are the most discernible ever in his career.
This, again, might sound funny to Converge newbies, but there is something of a long-standing in-joke between fans about Bannon’s raspy, pained vocals rarely sounding like the corresponding lyrics presented in their respective album sleeves, making for some much fun attempts at their chaotic live shows to try and bark along with Bannon.
This hasn’t always been the case of course, as shown by You Fail Me‘s stunning opener “First Light/Last Light” which has become both a live staple and a line in the sand in Converge’s career. By opening the follow-up to their most successful — and still to this day fervently adored — record with what was essentially an atmospheric love song, the band made a clear statement — “Don’t try to second-guess us.” It came as a bit of a shock to fans in 2004 expecting another brutal masterpiece akin to Jane Doe and as a result, You Fail Me remains an often underrated record.
However, this is where the “looking back” aspect on Converge’s latest album comes in. In many ways, The Dusk In Us feels like an answer to the question the band first posited way back in 2004. In terms of structure, themes, production and songwriting — and interviews — the Boston metallers seem to be writing the sequel to their most under-appreciated and misunderstood record. Opener “A Single Tear,” for instance, plays on much of the same themes as “First Light/Last Light” (aging, parenthood, loving relationships and the strain they are put under), while the album’s centrepiece and title track exists in exactly the same dimensions that the song “You Fail Me” does.
Even in terms of the overall feel of Dusk, there are strong relations to You Fail Me‘s dynamism; it’s a record that moves from heavy to beautiful in the space of one of Koller’s trademark drum-fills, but the songs are strung together with exactly the same tension-building that made their earlier work so impressive. Take tracks like “Murk & Murrow,” which is largely based on a palm-muted guitar and drum stabs, or “Trigger” right after it, which is held together by one of Newton’s trademark rumbling bass-lines. Both these tracks like work in very similar ways to the likes of “Drop Out” or “In Her Blood” while maintaining an original edge.
In fact, the 2017 versions go a little bit further back by indulging in Ballou’s first love, Slayer, on “Broken By Light.” In some regards, Dusk even goes a step beyond by giving the album a more defined finale in the heart-breaking “Thousands Of Miles Between Us” — where Bannon gives perhaps his best vocal performance to date — and ‘Reptilian’ which sees the whole record burn to the ground at its climax.
If one needed any more convincing, the band have already announced they will be playing You Fail Me in full alongside the new record at next year’s Roadburn Festival, where they performed Jane Doe only a couple years earlier. Hearing them side-by-side live will be a fascinating experience for those lucky enough to see it, but just the act of seeing them live remains an incredible one.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen this special band live, but, I got to do something fun this summer — take a new colleague [Editor’s note: It was me] to see them at this year’s Sled Island Festival in Calgary, which we were both covering. She was aware of the name but had never really considered seeing them before, and was utterly blown away by the experience of this powerful, quasi-religious experience. What interested me most was that in all the years I’ve been going to see Converge live, I had never seen them look like they were enjoying themselves as much as here and now in 2017, perhaps because they were safe in the knowledge they were about to unleash their best album in over a decade. Now in hearing the final result, it’s easy to see why they were so confident.
The Dusk In Us is out now via Epitaph/Deathwish Records. Get it here and stream it below.
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