In its recent history, Converge is responsible for two of the most unique and cathartic albums in the history of extreme music, Jane Doe and You Fail Me. Of course, you can't deny Converge's long, rich heritage going back to the early '90s. Unlike very few bands in their genre, Converge have not only survived, but thrived and strengthened. Jane Doe, You Fail Me, and now No Heroes are the culmination of their artistic vision, and also are filled to the brim with the kind of intensity and emotion that trendy metalcore bands could only dream of.
What makes No Heroes great is that it has a lot of Converge's best elements all in one place. The first handful of tracks are, somewhat like Jane Doe, blasts of turn-on-a-dime technical hardcore. Insane drumming abounds, and so does Kurt Ballou's frantic riffing, and Jacob Bannon's demented shrieks. As the album progresses, it starts to explore Converge's darker, moodier side, as heard on You Fail Me. Although Converge excels at being brutal, their darker, more off-kilter songs such as "Last Light" and "Hanging Moon" from You Fail Me really showed a lot of potential to be something completely in a class of their own. It makes me immensely happy that they have continued to experiment with these kinds of textures. Jacob Bannon utilized his clean vocals, anguished-sounding wails that I don't think anyone could reproduce, more this time and they sound just plain cool.
I'm not going to break it down track-by-track because that's something the listener has to experience for themselves. What Converge does is so profound and different from their peers, it is difficult to put into words. Converge is a band you feel, not just listen listen to. A major part of this is the production, an overlooked but vital part of the sound. You could say it's minimalistic, except in a very smart way. The textures are unpolished and raw, yet every instrument has its own place in the mix. Plus, the guitar riffs aren't overloaded with distortion. Every note Kurt Ballou plays you can hear loud and clear. Unlike 99% of heavy albums over the past 20 years or so, you can actually hear the bass on Converge albums. And on No Heroes, even the drums are fairly upfront. And it is great that you can hear everything, because every band member plays something that is worth hearing. Every member is a virtuoso in their respective instruments.
Converge is one of those bands you can praise until you're blue in the face, but it still could not do them justice. Whether brutal and exhilarating or dark and brooding, Converge is a band that oozes with originality and a refusal to bow to any trend. No two Converge albums sound exactly alike, and No Heroes is an exciting new chapter in their long history.
So, do you want to hear the same old shit, or do you want to hear something different? Instead of wasting your money on the new Killswitch Engage CD, walk a couple aisles down and pick up No Heroes instead. If you've never heard Converge before, it may just change the way you look at heavy music.
After rock and roll's pop ascension in the postwar era, the recording industry adopted the practice of "front-loading" albums, situating the strongest songs at the beginning. This serves several purposes: it sells the album to skeptical listeners (such as radio programmers, distributors and consumers), and it enables bands who don't have enough material to compete in the LP realm to reach a market which has been dominated by full-lengths since the 1960s.
Converge, who have now been together for over 15 years, have just released their seventh album-far beyond the output of most hardcore bands. Their long tenure has been sustained by a restless musical creativity and consistency that's virtually unmatched today, and they appropriately defy the standard technique of the recording industry by giving No Heroes some of the most fascinating architecture I've heard in a rock album. The album is front-loaded with its most harsh, disjointed and musically least interesting songs-while they're hardly bad, this kind of dissonant, stop-and-start hardcore has become somewhat boilerplate for a band like Converge. The police siren riff in "Hellbound" and the minor-key armament of "Sacrifice" and "Vengeance" impress but the songs can't hide their familiarity.
After this series of short sharp shocks, things start to unravel-in a good way. "Weight of the World" offers a brief chunk of spectral ambience guided by Kurt Ballou's ringing, lone guitar (sounding a bit reminiscent of The Jesus Lizard's Duane Dension). The title track follows by imbuing the band's fast, abrasive hardcore with greater coherence: a darkly melodic six-string churn lends the song much more depth than the opening material. The towering "Plagues" follows suit, asserting itself with an ominous guitar-and-organ motif and dense rhythmic gravity.
But the centerpiece of the album comes with "Grim Heart/Black Rose." Converge has shown great distinction and brilliance when following their impulses into epic, expansive territory, most notably on "Jane Doe"-they're better able to compete with Neurosis than the swarm of Neurosis clones, while still retaining their distinct identity. "Grim Heart" is a swirling, shatteringly mournful and evocative song powered by guest vocalist Jonah Jenkins (of Only Living Witness, amongst others), whose singing is stunningly emotive and perfectly voiced to fit the song's slow, bleak march. After six or so minutes, the song transforms into the stygian "Black Rose", a blast of frenzied rhythm, Jacob Bannon's tortured howls, and funereal guitar notes that sound like tolling church bells. It's one of the most impressive moments yet in the Converge canon.
When the band returns to up tempo fury on "Orphaned" and the subsequent songs, it sounds like they've assimilated the musical sophistication of the previous song, channeling it into a flurry of intriguing guitar lines and shifting dynamics (the guitar on "Orphaned" actually recalls no other band so much as Portraits of Past). They even manage to reach another emotional plateau on the awesome "Trophy Scars", which features an eerie, unexpected, and instantly memorable sing-along: "I want to live / without the guilt we give / I want to die / without this pain / without your name."
My only real complaint about No Heroes is the way the lyrics are formatted: although it may be appealing from an aesthetic perspective, presenting lyrics as an enormous, monolithic block always suggests to me that the band wants to deter the listener from reading them. The layout is otherwise terrific, featuring Bannon's always-entrancing artwork.
Converge is a band that expands their palette with each album while at the same time never losing track of what makes them who they are. This establishes them as a decidedly rare bird in the punk cosmos and in music writ large, but part of me can't help wondering what would happen if Converge fully embraced the more unconventional impulses that have produced a battery of their most memorable songs, such as "A Farewell Note to This City", "Jane Doe", "In Her Shadow", and "Grim Heart/Black Rose." Still, few bands have ever been this consistent, or this consistently interesting. Bravo.