Tyler’s Favorite Records (2001): Converge – ‘Jane Doe’

Via the Converge Bandcamp Page. Jacob Bannon’s cover art for ‘Jane Doe,’ released 20 years ago, tomorrow (9/4/2001).

I’ve always been of two minds about the relentless retroactive consumption of analog data into digital, considering how we are more than 80 years past The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. On one hand, certain images and texts were conceived to be transmitted in particular manners through specific networks. On the other hand, I get to watch more streaming video than I could conceivably view in my lifetime of bands I love at specific moments in their formative years. On the other other hand, it’s more material than I could possibly view in my lifetime. It gives me anxiety to think about sometimes.

Around the time of my birthday this year, I decided to dig a little and see and if live video miners like Hate5Six had published anything from my favorite Syracuse venue from my undergrad days, Planet 505 on Westcott Street. Of course they have: a pair of sets filmed by Daniella Dombrowski in May 2002. One of which was Converge, the greatest band ever to come from Boston, touring on the steam of their epoch-defining album Jane Doe.

Given the date of that gig, I should have been in town, probably burying my head in the sand over finals or something. It physically hurts that I could have walked down the street and been at this show. But then again, I was only cursorily aware of Converge at the time, and I missed the boat on any opportunity to be a “hardcore kid.” There were certainly plentiful opportunities to find community, maybe even start my own band (despite having very little musical talent), but I found other creative/social outlets throughout my college years.

More ink has been spilled about Jane Doe, Converge’s masterpiece, than almost any album in its style, so I don’t know how much my insights would contribute to the conversation. I agree with the assessment that this record did more for “loud” music than almost any record by a large handful of highly unlistenable metalcore arena-fillers who would follow. It elevated them to high art within whatever style of punk/metal it is they play. To put it bluntly, the record absolutely smokes. It takes you for a ride, and sometimes, it’s hard to get up after listening intently.

Ever since that bizarre moment in the mid-80s when metal became shockingly marketable (or marketably shocking), nerds had been fighting to defend the style from meddling parents, dilettante meatheads, and critics who overlooked the good shit. The subgenre’s greatest musician, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, died tragically in 1986, missing out on the spoils of that cultural crest. MTV put Headbanger’s Ball on the air in April 1987, splintering metal world into the hopelessly commercial (Poison, Ratt, etc.) and defiantly underground/evil (Mayhem, Repulsion, etc.) with some Slayers bouncing between those worlds.

Right after the turn of the millennium, Converge, who came from the hardcore scene more than metal, released a record in that tradition that was impossible NOT to defend. I’d be loathe to call Jane Doe metal, since their greatest proponents were punks or college radio nerds (guilty), but it has most of the tropes we associate with metal, particularly the distortion that Kurt Ballou shoves up your ass as both guitarist and producer. The biggest “upgrade” from previous efforts (most of which were still very good) came in the form of new drummer Ben Koller, who is now almost universally regarded as one of the best to ever play in the style. He also firmly shifted Converge into the camp of “mathcore” with bands like Botch – playing in non-traditional time signatures – though many of the songs on Jane Doe still follow certain rules of pop music structure. One example is “Bitter and Then Some.” I may not be an expert on metal or metalcore, but moments recorded in that style don’t get any better than that *BREAK* at 0:32, one of my favorite moments on the entire album:

Though the members of Converge could not predict the future of the world when writing and recording this opus, the album’s release date one week ahead of the September 11th attacks feels eerily appropriate. Any American with access to a television was inundated with images of rubble and fires for weeks, lending the companion tracks “Phoenix in Flight” and “Phoenix in Flames” an especially morbid din. To Ballou’s many, many credits here behind the analog mixing deck, the latter really does make Jacob Bannon sound like a gigantic bird burning to death.

I’m not being hyperbolic. Listen for yourself. It’s the 21st century, and you can find any of these tracks pretty easily. This isn’t underground anymore. Not that there aren’t still plenty of jocks and/or meatheads in the scene, but thanks in large part to Converge, the thrashy, mathy punk they helped spearhead (and still run the table on) is unquestionable art and belongs to the nerds again. Only now, we stand in the back, but we’re still at the gig, all these years later.

For those interested in my full Top 10 list of 2001:

  1. Converge – ‘Jane Doe’
  2. The Coup – ‘Party Music’
  3. Aesop Rock – ‘Labor Days’
  4. Jimmy Eat World – ‘Bleed American’
  5. The Strokes – ‘Is This It’
  6. Life Without Buildings – ‘Any Other City’
  7. The Dismemberment Plan – ‘Change’
  8. Rival Schools – ‘United by Fate’
  9. Nymb – ‘So, this is How It Is’
  10. Andrew W.K. – ‘I Get Wet’

Your Sonic Sunday: May 17th (Punk Scholars, Jangle Pop, and Hardcore)

Happy Sunday! I have a few music documentaries to recommend (which are streaming, for free, on YouTube as of this posting), but first a couple of announcements about things near and dear to me.

First, per Dr. Matt Grimes, the Punk Scholars Network website is up and updated! For those keeping track, I published an article in the connected journal Punk & Post-Punk a couple years ago ahead of Capitals of Punk, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with this consortium more in the future. For now, take a gander at what they’ve been up to lately, and who makes up their team.

a2570743017_10Second, while working on the Sonic Geography Song Challenge, I’ve inadvertently discovered that Mark Mulcahy put the entire Miracle Legion discography up on Bandcamp (the second-best website on the internet, behind Cinema Treasures). For my fellow 90’s kids who remember the beautiful show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Polaris were, ostensibly, a massaged iteration of Miracle Legion. Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb have said that Miracle Legion’s 1985 EP The Backyard directly informed the aesthetic of the show, and it makes perfect sense.

Under the “Hey! Free Viewings!” category: Lance Bangs made this appropriately slow-burn documentary about Slint’s 1991 masterpiece Spiderland, and it’s available to watch here. He does a good job pulling from his own super-fandom of the mystery that surrounded albums like this before the internet, as well as the fascinating little world of Louisville, Kentucky.

maxresdefaultDrew Stone has been breaking his back for a long time to not only keep the spirit of New York Hardcore (or as it’s properly pronounce “N’Yuk Hahdcowa”) alive through shows he organizes in Brooklyn, but hosting numerous live-streams with NYHC figures. I caught this one with Lou Koller, the singer of one of my favorite bands Sick of It All, and as I may have said on twitter, it felt like a warm embrace. Stone’s “The NYHC Chronicles” documentary (stream-able here) digs deep into that universe, and I recommend it. Also, somehow, Walter Schriefels does. not. age.

the-jane-projectSpeaking of hardcore (just a bit further North), every time I have the privilege of introducing someone to Converge’s 2001 masterpiece Jane Doe, I get excited about the record all over again. While traversing the algorithm for those previously mentioned videos, I found this video of Kurt Ballou talking about the album to a class at the Berklee College of Music in the band’s native Boston. As an academic who thinks Jane Doe deserves every bit as much respect as any other piece of critically-coveted “art music” of the past two decades, it’s always gratifying to see Converge getting that kind of institutional validation (not that they need it). Over the past couple of years, I’ve had an epiphany: Converge may be the greatest band in Boston history. Sit on that one, and tell whether you agree that there may be weight to that argument.