Review Summary: That’s one small step for metalcore…one giant leap for Converge…17 of 17 thought this review was well written“Hardcore has to be about more than just Slayer riffs and bad poetry.”
--Jacob Bannon, 2005.
Almost twenty-one years have passed since the inception of Converge
. Merely a mutual ambition between two self-confessed “hardcore kids with left-over Slayer riffs” recorded on a four-track two decades ago slowly grew as part of an obscure underground scene through the ten years of the mainstream’s ignorance towards it. “[…]It was an era of unrestrained creativity,” recalls Exclaim! Magazine staff member Chris Gramlich, “zero commercial appeal, camaraderie, previously unmatched levels of sonic density and abrasion, and commitment to artistry (a more artistically pure time than today’s ‘rock stardom’- seeking hardcore bands and the compromise it entails) that Converge would release two of the most important and influential records in aggressive music; Petitioning the Empty Sky
and When Forever Comes Crashing
would alternately drive the era’s creation and innovation, and stay countless steps ahead of the underground’s fickle trends” (excerpted from the article Waiting On Forever, Part II
, featured within the booklet of the 2005 reissue of When Forever Comes Crashing
). With the passing of eleven years since the release of When Forever Comes Crashing
, Converge, now with an additional three studio albums completed and the support of bands, critics and listeners around the world, continue, on one level, to construct and improve their sound, while, on another, taking a huge step away from anything they’ve ever recorded before.
“[I was getting the] more straightforward, raw punk aggression out in a yet-to be named hardcore side project that I started. So that leaves me free to get weird and progressive with Converge.”
--Kurt Ballou, August 2009.
So what is Axe to Fall
? I guess you could call it Converge’s Ire Works
, or even their In Defense of the Genre
(but perhaps to a bit of a lesser extent than these two). While Axe to Fall
is surely not a directional shift, it is, at least, an experimentation; an opportunity for the band’s sound to be layered upon something new, with some completely newfound material unlike anything you’ve ever heard from the band before (in reference to “Wretched World” and “Cruel Bloom”, hence the Ire Works
comparison), with a legion of guest musicians to help them along the way (hence the In Defense of the Genre
comparison). A record of extraordinary songwriting calibre, the album may well be quite intimidating to the listener, but once its full potential is grasped, Axe to Fall
becomes a brilliant, emotional masterpiece of technicality, complexity, and aggression.
sees a more broadened side of the band, the “classic” Converge sound of their later albums (the “trilogy” of Jane
) serves as the basis upon which Converge has lain most of the newer elements of their material. Guitar solos would be a strong example (most, if not all, of which have been performed by guest musicians), as they are something that Converge rarely includes in their music, yet they have surfaced with surprising abundance in the album, most notably performed by ex-Hatebreed
guitarist and hip-hop producer Sean Martin (“Reap What You Sow”), former Converge bassist Stephen Brodsky of Cave In
(“Effigy”) and Ulf Cederlund, previously of Swedish death metal band Entombed
The album itself is quite tight and cohesive, a trait drawn from the variety, high production quality and evenly distributed energy that Axe to Fall
presents. The album opens perfectly on a great bass riff with the track “Dark Horse”, moving through rapid, melodic riff-driven tracks such as “Axe to Fall”, “Effigy” and “Wishing Well”, the more rhythmically complex songs “Damages”, “Losing Battle” and “Slave Driver” and the slow, sludgy favourite “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast”. Though the majority of songs are rooted in quick tempos and blistering guitars, songs such “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” and the post-metal/progressive rock-influenced “Cruel Bloom” continue to withhold the intensity of such tracks as violent and speed-driven as “Reap What You Sow” or “Cutter”, despite the absence of the band’s patented fast hardcore sound. In addition, “Cruel Bloom” and “Wretched World” demonstrates Converge’s efforts outside of the metalcore genre with what began with Kurt Ballou’s observation of drummer Ben Koller’s progressive rock interest; two astounding prog’-rock songs primarily consisting of eerie vocals, while a haunting piano (“Cruel Bloom”) and epic guitar harmonics (“Wretched World”) assist in building the tracks up into their final culminations.
Aside from the guest contributions featured on the album, Converge’s performance on Axe
is as sharp as ever. Bannon’s vocals have seen improvement since 2006’s No Heroes
, particularly in his clean vocals, which pop up a number of times through the album (though most prominent on “Dead Beat”), as they have been notated far better than in the band’s previous releases. Bannon’s wild, animalistic screaming is as impacting as ever; though little has changed in them since Jane Doe
, they hardly seem repetitive yet. Interestingly, I have come to greatly favour the backing vocals of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Kurt Ballou and bassist Nate Newton (examples being featured on the tracks “Cutter” and “Dark Horse”), which are presented as harsh, deeply-toned yells. Bannon’s lyrics have lost none of the iconic sincerity and vigour they are known for, continuing to use figurative language of a dark, poetic nature in order to “vent about things in a healthy way so I'm not a person that walks around with a lot of negative energy”.
Much of the metallic melodies of guitarist Kurt Ballou have been passed onto the guest guitarists featured on the album, while he has put a larger focus in his chord riffs. Thankfully, this decision has been evidenced as a wise one, as Ballou’s chords “click” far better with Converge’s music than on most of the band’s other albums, as well as providing a main source of strength and impact. However, the handful of lead guitar passages Ballou performs, the frantic riff on “Axe to Fall” and the opposing light, effects-driven section of “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feed” being among the most recognizable, have yet again displayed his extreme skill being put to good use in the simplicity of repeated metallic riffs.
Whether it be the opening riff on “Dark Horse”, his skilful, unusually timed progression on “Slave Driver” or the lingering, intermittent strokes of “Wretched World” that captures your fancy, bassist Nate Newton is sure to be well-received by listeners for the newly increased fixation upon his work and the expertise he presents through this. Making up the other half of the rhythm section is the work of drummer Ben Koller, who yet again shows off his amazing talent for his instrument with some of his greatest rhythms yet, the blasting opening beat of “Cutter”, the impressively timed rhythm to “Losing Battle”, and even his minimalistic contribution to “Cruel Bloom” showing his proficiency as both a composer and a performer.
“For a very long time, we've wanted to do a collaboration album where we could include people we're close with or friends with and who we gel with musically and socially. Now, we did that and it's pretty seamless. [“Axe to Fall”] doesn't feel like a big rock record where the guest vocalists come out and a spotlight is being thrown on them. It's much more involved than that. It's much more refined.”
--Jacob Bannon, September 2009.
In the same fashion as No Heroes
, Converge have brought a number of guest musicians into the album, but this time, the number has increased by eleven, summing up to a whopping sixteen guest contributors divided over eight different tracks. This collection of metal/hardcore all-stars has provided things that Converge themselves have never done before (or have been unable to do), particularly in the areas of vocals and guitar solos. While I have already discussed the latter, the amount of depth that the former adds to Axe
is just incredible. Ferocious backing vocals from notable hardcore musicians including Chris Taylor (of Pygmy Lush
, though many will remember him from Pg. 99
) (“Cruel Bloom”), Blacklisted
frontman George Hirsch (“Axe to Fall”) and the largely unknown but rather notable hardcore figure John Pettibone (“Cutter”) add even more strength and power to Jacob Bannon’s vocals, providing something of a “bass” quality to Bannon’s shrieking vocal style. In addition, legendary post-metal vocalist Steve Von Till of Neurosis
enters into Axe
’s penultimate track, “Cruel Bloom”, after an almost western-style guitar riff with his low, menacing vocals to progress into a beautiful, angelic chorus combining his vocals with that of Des Ark singer Aimee Argote and a mysterious contributor credited only as “The Rodeo” until the final minute of the song, when everything bursts into flames and the track enters a stunning, slow metallic section as Von Till takes on his more guttural vocal style, before the track comes to an end with a fading guitar chord.
But, however stunning any of these guest contributions may seem, I doubt that they will ever match up to that of the album’s closing track, “Wretched World”, in which guest musicians outnumber the actual members of Converge. The track contains a total of approximately six to eight different musicians, including the members of Genghis Tron
, and drummers Brad Fickeisen and John “J.R.” Robert-Conners of The Red Chord
, and Cave In
respectively, in addition to the members of Converge (though it is unspecified whether any have been excluded). In place of Bannon, Genghis Tron vocalist Mookie Singerman provides clean vocals to the track, using his stunning voice over a combination of overdriven, ringing guitar chords, harmonics, subtle, electronica-style keyboards and a pounding drum beat to create a perfect ending to Axe to Fall
, as well as one of the greatest songs of Converge’s entire discography.
Axe to Fall
may not live up to the standards of the 2001 opus Jane Doe
, but it is more than clear that Axe
is not an attempt to overcome, but rather an attempt to expand, and, evidently, Converge
has been extremely successful with moving into yet another phase in their music, and yet, they have in fact surpassed most of their previous works with the release of what is easily the Metal Album of the Year. Needless to say, Converge
is now a far more matured, developed group in both their songwriting and musicianship, creating the most accessible, creatively shaped album of their discography.
“We sufficiently creatively challenged ourselves. We raised the bar from the previous album [“No Heroes”]. We appreciate our past albums, but we're very much about forward movement and challenging ourselves musically and expressing ourselves emotionally. If we can do that successfully, which we did on the new album [“Axe to Fall”], then we've made a solid move in the next chapter of the band.”
--Jacob Bannon, September 2009.
- “Dark Horse”
- “Axe to Fall”
- “Slave Driver”
- “Cruel Bloom”
- “Wretched World”