Somewhere near the end of Albert Mudrian’s new book, Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore, the author identifies Converge as one of a crop of punk acts that have “adopted death metal’s sheer ferocity as the perfect vehicle for their personal and political views.” But anyone hoping for principled opinions from the Boston quartet’s sixth and latest full-length, You Fail Me, is in for something of a let-down—or at least a bit of confusion. Even the band itself seems a little mixed-up: In one recent interview, guitarist Kurt Ballou said that “all of the shit happening in the world today” has left him politically apathetic. In another, vocalist/lyricist/vegetarian/NPR listener Jacob Bannon declared, “People who lead comfortable lives are starting to get angry about something.”
Obviously, there’s plenty for any bunch of left-leaning punk-metalists to get angry about this campaign season: Poverty is on the rise, civil liberties are on the wane, and Iraq remains a quagmire. Yet the gravel-voiced Bannon—who doesn’t so much sing as verbally project a total nervous breakdown—chooses instead to focus on those personal views, saving much of his vitriol for You Fail Me’s “coward boys and cheater girls.” And the latter, it should be noted, receive a lot more than the former: “You are nothing more than late-night fantasy,” he screams on “In Her Blood.” “You are nothing more than a rehearsed tragedy.” That song’s subject, a “dim-lit whore” (or at least someone with similar recreational habits) keeps failing Me’s protagonist throughout, inevitably opting for booze, drugs, or skeezy sex over “true love.”
For its part, the rest of the group frames the lyrical heartache not with melancholy, but with arty noisecore that is equal parts Magic Band and Metallica. Ballou is every bit as restless as Bannon is relentless, forever interrupting his headbanging riffage with jazz-nerd paroxysms. That is, except when he isn’t: On the largely acoustic “In Her Shadow,” the guitarist simply strums some minor-key acid folk, sounding less brutal than psychedelicized. And on the album-opening “First Light/Last Light,” which may or may not be about the state of that comfortable-lived nation—“I need a purpose/And I need a reason,” Bannon offers, “I need to know there’s trophy and meaning/To all we lose and all we fight for/To all our loves and to our wars”—Ballou takes a Who-style stab at windmill chords, efficiently cutting through bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller’s slightly punkier polyrhythms.
While you’re listening to You Fail Me or its equally ferocious predecessor, 2001’s metal-crit fave Jane Doe, it’s easy to hear why some fans might expect overt politics from Converge: The band’s swiftest songs have an anthemic, save-the-world urgency that practically begs for Clash- or Fugazi-like content. We’re not talking about the quaint crossover moves of, say, a Corrosion of Conformity or a D.R.I.—this is fully evolved stuff, rendered with as much grandeur, precision, and genre-erasing confidence as you could ask for. Plus, Bannon’s vocal presence is just too pissed-off to jibe with most folks’ image of the lovelorn indie rocker: Those screams on “Black Cloud” don’t sound like depression; they sound like apocalypse.
But hey, lovelorn he is. And that’s You Fail Me’s paradox in a nutshell: Despite its rather progressive take on aggressive rock ’n’ roll, the album is thematically the same as the boy-loses-girl songs that have shown up in jukeboxes since before Bill Haley. In that sense, the record might even be called traditional. But so be it: Converge is no less powerful a band for leaving its politics largely unsung, and its new record is more than adequate proof that there’s nothing wrong with mixing even the most forward-thinking music with a little passionate conservatism. After all, elections come and go, but love hurts forever.
Like You Fail Me, Mastodon’s second and latest full-length, Leviathan, isn’t about all of the shit happening in the world today. But it isn’t about matters of the heart, either—at least not those of the band members: After passing around a copy of every teenager’s worst lit-class nightmare, the Atlanta quartet was inspired to write a concept album about Captain Ahab and a certain white whale. Of course, anyone who paid any attention to the hairy and heavily tattooed band’s first full-length, 2002’s Remission, might have seen this coming. That disc, after all, featured lyrics about priests and princesses, about battles on land and at sea—even if it did hide them behind a black cloak of barked vocals, weird time signatures, and drumming that was often more fill than beat.
But this time around, the instrumentation isn’t as dense, the songs aren’t as explosive, and bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds actually sing. In recent interviews, drummer and band spokesperson Brann Dailor says that he has become disillusioned with the past two decades of death, grind, and nü—basically, Choosing Death–era stuff—preferring instead classic acts such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Thin Lizzy. Frankly, it shows: From its very first notes, Leviathan sounds a whole lot cleaner than Remission, as if Hinds and guitarist Bill Kelliher had both scrubbed a couple of layers of scuzz off their axes. And sans scuzz, there’s just nothing that out-there about the midtempo faux-Egyptian riff that dominates opening track “Blood and Thunder”—it might as well be streaming from DC101 or the Arrow.
Extremity aside, though, the song remains, if not the same, at least similar: Kelliher and Hinds still alternate between chugging power chords and busy in-sync leads, often losing themselves within tech-metal labyrinths of their own making. (See “Hearts Alive,” vocal-free for almost all of its 13 minutes.) But Kelliher and Hinds are getting better at downplaying their chops for the sake of the songs. “Naked Burn,” for example, is Mastodon’s most accessible track to date—which has everything to do with the relative simplicity of its guitar lines and the Soundgarden-smoothness of its vocal hook: “Saaave yourseeelf/Dooon’t wait on meee.” “Seabeast” is similarly voxcentric, its crunchy guitar chords in perfect step with the quasi-Asian vocal melody. And “Aqua Dementia,” which features the much grittier singing of Neurosis’ Scott Kelly, is the height of Mastodon’s newfound asceticism. By its midpoint, the guitars have abandoned both their punk speed and their classical-metal showiness for a doom-laden crawl.
Merely the fact that these guys are starting to write songs around some good-old-fashioned singing is enough to distinguish them from most of the metal underground. In fact, that’s just the kind of development that has already scored Mastodon a few future-of-metal column inches in Rolling Stone. But given Dailor’s regressive play list—not to mention Leviathan’s ripped–from–the–Cliffs Notes concept—retreat seems to be the intent here, not advancement.
Granted, there’s a certain 13 Going on 30–ish thrill in hearing Sanders shout such wannabe-vintage lines as “Hail people of Iceland” and “Beware the hammer of Thor.” But recognizing the classics is one thing; actually making one is quite another.CP