Jake Bannon portrait by Grant Siedlecki
Converge + the Red Chord + Baroness
April 1, 2008
I’m not sure exactly how or when it happened, but sometime this decade Converge went from being one of many screamy matinee-circuit hardcore bands (albeit a scarily intense one) to a massively influential standard-bearer for whatever we’re calling the intersection of hardcore and metal these days. (Thanks to doofs like Unearth, “metalcore” no longer seems quite sufficient.) Converge is now a sort of late-00s equivalent to mid-80s Black Flag, a cottage-industry scene-uniter whose contemporaries and stylistic descendants hold them in something resembling awe. Studio-rat guitarist Kurt Ballou produced my three favorite metal albums of the young year (Disfear’s Live the Storm, Genghis Tron’s Board Up the House, Torche’s Meandrethal), leasing out to deserving parties his ability to make this stuff sound epic and monolithic without losing brutalist grime. In his secondary capacity as a graphic designer, vocalist Jacob Bannon is almost singlehandedly responsible for the plague of distressed fonts that’s infected the packaging of damn near every hardcore album that comes out these days. More importantly, though, it’s impossible to count how many bands have adapted Converge’s chaotic but precise expressionist bash. Converge does a specific combination of unstable time-signatures, bloodcurdling screams, and gut-churn pigfuck riffage better than anyone else, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of other bands from trying it out. Tuesday night’s Blender Theater bill featured more than its share of Decibel-mag boldface names: tech-death troglodytes the Red Chord, expansive prog-sludge wailers Baroness, drummerless glitch-crunch spazzes Genghis Tron. Throughout the night, though, a massive Converge banner hung ominously and iconically behind the stage. All these bands played in Converge’s shadow, almost literally.
Ballou started Converge’s set onstage by himself, playing the clanging riff to “Plagues,” and the pit on the floor reached frenzied levels before the other three quarters of the band even made it to the stage. Converge shows are renown for this sort of thing; a 2002 Syracuse show marked the first and only time I’ve ever seen anyone execute a full-on standing backflip in the middle of the pit. For all that, though, Converge come across as a band not particularly concerned with mystique. A few months earlier, I’d seen the Dillinger Escape Plan headline the same venue playing a roughly analogous set of exploding mathcore, and the differences between the two bands’ sets were instructive. DEP frontman Greg Puciato hurtled himself around the stage relentlessly, climbing speaker-racks and spitting fireballs, managing to convey a sense of vague antipathy toward everyone surrounding him all the while. Bannon, meanwhile, mostly hugged the stage, squatting low to hand the mic to various crowd-members and apologizing profusely between songs for the barrier that kept him from his public. Bannon looks like an avenging demon; the hard planar surfaces of his face give him a weirdly pterodactyl-esque air, and he has the most extensive and forbidding set of frontman tats this side of Dan Higgs. But when he’s not singing, he’s all puppydog sincerity, thanking the audience over and over and helpfully announcing which albums his songs came from as he introduced them. The rest of the band, meanwhile, came off like total goofs; at one point, Ballou and drummer Ben Koller threatened to cover “Radar Love” while bassist Nate Newton raced around to replace the gear he’d just broken. As jarring and unsettling as their music might be, Converge come off friendly onstage.
Converge songs have a tendency to lurch abruptly between movements, unfolding according to their own logic. Ballou kept a shelf of effects pedals at his feet, but he’s not one for shoegazey meditations; his riffs shift and churn restlessly and maniacally, never settling down for long. Bannon’s terrified screams, meanwhile, are usually completely incomprehensible without a lyric sheet. This is freaked-out challenging stuff, but it also works beautifully as mass-catharsis screamalong material. And so Tuesday night’s Converge show came off like a sweaty revival meeting, a communal renewal of shared negation. There’s a 7-11 a couple of doors down from the venue, and after the show it filled up with red-faced, dehydrated revelers reenacting post-show rituals that probably dated back to suburban-hardcore high-school days. And maybe that’s why Converge get to be extreme-music big-tent leaders; no matter how jumbled and unsettled their music gets, it’s almost impossible to leave one of their shows without feeling like you’re 15.
That’s not the case with fellow Boston band the Red Chord, whose juddering blur mostly sounded to these ears like a confused tangle of metal signifiers, their riffs and roars and blastbeats not necessarily having anything to do with each other. Zach Baron pointed out that almost everyone in the band conformed to some separate metal stereotype: screamo guy, old-school death-metal warrior guy, guy who looks like he watches a lot of anime, guy who wishes he was in Bane. True, but the problem wasn’t that they looked like they belonged in different bands; it was that they sounded like it, everyone hammering away seemingly oblivious to everyone else. Every once in a while, they’d all lock into the same riff at the same time, and then they’d be kind of fun, but those moments were rare. And when they were all rushing off in different directions, the little details of their music got lost in the cavernous venue’s echoes, a bad scenario for a band so enamored of technical skill. But then, I pretty much can’t stand death metal, so maybe the problem was me.
The Blender Theater apparently runs a pretty tight ship. We entered before eight and missed Genghis Tron entirely; Baroness was already mid-roar. The Georgia quartet plays way slower than every other band on the bill, throwing Explosions in the Sky guitar-twinkles and ripping Southern-rock leads into their heaving Neurosis builds. Frontman John Baizley looks every bit the grizzled backwoods prophet, and his voice is this great open-throated wail. The band’s set was frontloaded with big goosebump moments, but as it wore on, Baizley sang less and less, focusing instead on mathy excursions. Even then, their stuff made for great zone-out music; it’s always good to have one band who smokes a whole lot of weed on these bills. But I’d love to see Baroness somewhere other than a too-big space at opening-band volume, somewhere where they can really take off.