Originally written by Doug Moore.
If any one band can justifiably be deemed the ‘leader’ of international metalcore, that band is Converge. On the verge of their third decade of existence, these Masshole madmen have played a huge role in defining the subgenre’s signature sound: primal hardcore punk mixed with thrash metal dexterity, scattershot timing and vast doses of noise. What’s more, vocalist Jake Bannon runs the prolific Deathwish Inc. label, guitarist Kurt Ballou delivers outstanding audio engineering work to other acts via his Godcity Studios, and all four members are involved in various side projects (Doomriders, Old Man Gloom, Supermachiner, Blue/Green Heart, etc.). In short, Converge are among those few bands who can be accurately described as an “institution.”
But since 2001’s seminal Jane Doe, Converge have been in something of a holding pattern. The two albums since have both been head and shoulders above average, but were also clear attempts to replicate Jane Doe’s successes. Axe to Fall marks the end of that holding pattern. It retains a lot of the ingredients that made No Heroes and You Fail Me work, but it also breaches new territory—a more melodic rock’n’roll feel, wilder guitar acrobatics, and an unprecedented (for Converge) sense of fun.
That’s right, fun. For all Converge’s spasmodic antics and histrionic lyrical themes, they are a group of professional musicians, and Axe to Fall is unmistakably the sound of pros having a ball. What’s more, they’re playing with their friends. This disc features as many guest spots as some rap albums: Stephen Brodsky (Cave In), Ulf Cederlund (Disfear, Entombed), John Pettibone (Himsa), Sean Martin (ex-Hatebreed), and Tim Cohen (108)…and that’s just naming all of the guitarists.
Perhaps it was this wealth of Axe-slinging talent (hur hur) that led Converge to write the most guitar-centric album of their career. Axe to Fall opens with four of the most explosive guitar performances in the band’s history. “Dark Horse” and the title track are both pure Ballou—simple melodic ideas that have been scrambled beyond recognition and pushed to the brink of collapse—while “Reap What You Sow” and “Effigy” also feature guest solos by Martin and Brodsky, respectively. Ballou puts his own soloing ability on the album’s second side, zapping speed licks left and right on “Cutter.”
Though this more guitar-oriented approach has drawn lots of Mastodon comparisons (ironic, given that Converge have probably influenced them more than they’ve influenced Converge), this band has lost none of the punk-derived energy that has always characterized their work. Ben Koller, Converge’s spectacularly underrated drummer, still defaults to a loping d-beat, and bassist Nate Newton and the album’s host of guest vocalists frequently engage in call-and-response exchanges with Bannon. For his part, the ever-convulsive vocalist seems to have finally acknowledged his failing harsh vocals, and relies more heavily on the Jesus Lizard-ish yell that appeared on You Fail Me than before.
But despite retaining most of their distinguishing features, Converge has produced a markedly different album from their past three here. It seems as though Ballou and Newton have shifted away from the band’s more spasmodic, noise-driven tendencies and focused on their considerable gift for subtle hooks. Virtually every song here could pass for an anthem, and yet none of them are overtly anthemic—the band has just struck upon the perfect mix of aggression and coherence.
Axe to Fall’s two biggest anomalies are also the album’s closers: “Cruel Bloom” and “Wretched World.” The former, a bluesy dirge sung/croaked largely by the inimitable Steve Von Till, is unquestionably the stronger of the two. The track’s wistful verse-chorus conversation eventually explodes into a (fittingly) Neurosis-styled climax that could’ve gone on longer, but satisfies nonetheless. The 7-minute “Wretched World,” on the other hand, overstays its welcome. Though Mookie Singerman (Genghis Tron) does his best to keep the song afloat with his ethereal singing, its Cure-styled echo chamber meandering seems to suggest a dénouement that never comes.
At this point in their career, Converge are unlikely to produce another work of the emotional intensity or stylistic invention of Jane Doe, and from the sound of things, they’ve realized it. As a result, they’ve relaxed, and that looseness has allowed them to produce their best bunch of songs since…well, 2001. In a year that has seen excellent releases by a number of other veteran metalcore acts (Burnt By the Sun, Coalesce, Cave In), Converge have proven that they’re not even close to slowing down. Truly excellent.