Friday, May 27, 2011

Week One: Converge - You Fail Me

If I'm going to kick this off right, I may as well start with the song that gives this blog its name. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present You Fail Me by Converge.

Converge, the legendary four-piece (formerly five-piece) hardcore band out of my home in Boston, Massachusetts, hold a privileged place on the short list of my favorite bands of all time. If you've heard them - and if you have some tolerance for the more abrasive side of the punk-and-hardcore spectrum - then I don't really have to explain why. But, in brief: the flawless instrumentation, Jacob Bannon's tortured vocals and lyrics, the unparalleled intensity of their recordings and live shows, and one of the most memorable visual aesthetics in all of punk rock. Yeah, that almost sums it up.

I have an embarrassing confession to make, though. I used to really not fucking like Converge.

A lot of people have that hurdle to jump, I guess. Converge is far from easy on the listener. I've seen the looks on some people's faces when I've foolishly attempted to sway their opinion by playing their music, and sometimes it looks like it downright hurts.

Okay, so Converge are loud, aggressive, and uncompromising. But my introduction to the world of hardcore largely consisted of crust-core bands like Toxic Narcotic and the great Kill the Man Who Questions, to say nothing of the classic-but-still-heavy Black Flag and Minor Threat. I was used to music that sounded fucking gross.

What I wasn't used to was the way Converge effortlessly managed to fuse that gnarly, just-this-side-of-falling-apart chaos with genuine virtuosity. I remember the first time I heard their early opus, "The Saddest Day." I was in the back seat of what I believe was Jeremy Tyarks' car, driving from band practice in Natick. Me, Jeremy, Dave Drury, and Jeff Valenzola were playing in a pretty gothy metalcore band that was, at the time, called either Murder in Sepia or Faith of the Fallen (yup; we were those kids). I think Dan O'Neill was in the car too. Jeremy, Jeff, and Dan were all rocking out to the strains of loud, dissonant guitar and guttural screams. "Okay," I sheepishly asked, "am I the only one in the car who doesn't really like Converge?" I could tell from the pregnant pause and surprised looks on their faces that, yeah, this was the case. It was just so... messy. Why couldn't these guys just play a little cleaner so I could tell what they were playing, like Slayer or Metallica?

They all just shook their heads. Yeah, I totally didn't get it.

Flash forward to a few years later, my junior year of high school. I'm in the same car, but it's just me and Jeremy this time. I seem to remember that he was driving me home from school, which is strange because we didn't go to the same high school or even live in the same town. Whatever, so I don't remember what he was doing at Franklin High. I remember the inside of his car, though. It was always filled with those massive fuck-off CD booklets that could hold like five hundred CDs each (hey, remember physical media, guys?). Anyway, somewhere on the home stretch of Lincoln Street that slow, deliberate open-C chord started blaring out of the car stereo. I forgot whatever it was I was talking about and just listened. About a minute into the song after Jacob Bannon's bile-stained vocals kicked in: "Woah, Jeremy, what the fuck are we listening to?"

"This is Converge, man."


I was pretty genuinely surprised. Clearly, I needed to reevaluate my opinion on this band. We pulled into my driveway with still half of the six-minute song to go, and I'm pretty sure I made Jeremy just sit in the car to finish listening to it with me.

When I started digging back through their catalog, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn't a case of a band's later material being drastically better than their early stuff (although it is easy to regard Converge's oeuvre before and after their landmark 2001 album Jane Doe as two different beasts); it was simply the case that I was wrong about these guys, or maybe I just wasn't ready for them at the time.

So let's look at the song, then:

At a plodding five-and-a-half minutes, the title track from You Fail Me stands apart from the rest of the album. Neatly closing out side one, coming hot on the heels of a six-song, twelve-minute blast of fast-paced hardcore, "You Fail Me" slows things to a paralyzing crawl without sacrificing any of the past songs' heaviness. Consisting for the most part of one chord being driven over and over again like a nail, it kinda sounds like if you played Black Sabbath at half-speed through broken speakers on full volume, or an impressionistic horror movie soundtrack as played by Entombed. It was neither the first nor the last time that Converge would use this formula (see "Hell to Pay" off Jane Doe, or more recently "Worms Will Feed" off Axe to Fall), but to my ears, it's the most intimidating and the most successful.

As for the lyrics, although Bannon's indecipherable delivery often forces listeners into a kind of guessing game, forsaking the barked proclamations of traditional hardcore for the slurry growls of death metal, he takes on a rhythmic enunciation here that pushes the acid in his words forward in the mix:

You fail me with every fatal crush
You fail me with every abandoned love
You fail me with your inferno fuck-me eyes
that burn as fuel for my city and its neon lights
burn bright, white line fever, take them all

It's like a questionable hookup as remembered through a nightmare, and it's undeniably effective.

Since this song turned me around, I became a Converge fan, full-stop. I'd rate them among my top five favorite musical acts of all time, and probably my favorite that still regularly performs and releases music. I have just about all of their releases, some of them in multiple formats. I've seen them live five times (including once just six days ago - they've still got it). When I turned eighteen, I even graced my skin with a tattoo of You Fail Me's album cover, just one of the many unforgettable images that Jacob Bannon and other great artists such as Aaron Turner of Isis have created for the band.

But I think what really marks it as a great song is that I still remember where I was and who I was with when I first heard it, now seven years later. - Official Converge Website.

-Michael James Roberson


If I may, a brief introduction on the purpose of this blog.

I dig music. Even moreso, I dig discovering music I haven't heard, new and old. And I really like introducing my friends and acquaintances to music that they haven't heard.

That's basically all this is about. Each week I'll post a new song with a brief bit of writing about why I like it, and why I'd like you to like it too. Knowing me, the focus will probably tip towards punk rock, hardcore, and the heavier side of the musical spectrum, but I'll try to throw in a little something for everybody. Hopefully you, the reader, will find something good you haven't heard, and maybe investigate further. And hey, as I share, so should you. Comments are actively encouraged. Let's all help each other refine our palates a little.

Sounds good?

-Michael James Roberson