You Fail Me proves hardcore can grow up without losing intensity

You Fail Me proves hardcore can grow up without losing intensity

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Hardcore’s biggest asset, and its most notable flaw, comes from its status as a youth movement. It’s a community linked by shared vitriol and boundless energy—the very resources that often push away bands and fans as both begin to age. When a question was posed via Tumblr to hardcore-affiliated act Self Defense Family addressing fans’ excitement about the slate of reunions at this year’s This Is Hardcore festival, vocalist Patrick Kindlon astutely addressed why hardcore remains vital, even if its biggest names often fade away:

Part of why hardcore sucks 90% of the time is that musicians feel like they’ve been pushed out when they hit 28. Right around the time they learn to play their instrument. As a result, hardcore is considered ‘youth music’ instead of ‘life music’ and we hear the same riffs and beats being used 35 years into this thing.

Other types of music do this too, of course. But none do it with the same willful ignorance hardcore does. It’s like the thing wants to kill itself.

Granted, it’s difficult to age gracefully playing material that demands a kinetic live show. But it’s not impossible.

As Kindlon notes, there’s immense difficulty in aging while playing aggressive music. Aside from the issue of an older group of musicians attempting to conjure the same energetic catharsis during each live show, fans are notoriously fickle, always ready to disown a band for changing its sound and, more confoundingly, only embrace its earliest material. It’s this set of circumstances that puts bands up against a wall. Having said all they could with mosh calls and breakdowns, there’s few places to go, and fewer people willing to embrace these divergences, showing that the hardcore scene is not always excited by what’s new, instead what is known. But, for every band that was wrung through the grinder, precious few have been able to transcend these limitations, and few have done so as gracefully as Boston’s Converge.

Formed in 1990 by a pair of precocious teens–vocalist Jacob Bannon and guitarist Kurt Ballou–Converge quickly began carving its place in the eclectic New England hardcore scene. Though it shared a hometown with Slapshot and SS Decontrol, Converge took its cues from New Jersey’s metal-tinged Rorschach, and by the time it released its first full-length in 1994–the ambitiously messy Halo In A Haystack—it would be cribbing the best elements of the then-emerging power-violence scene to toss into its volatile concoction. Though Converge championed its hometown, its ability to jump from a chugging breakdown to manic blast beats allowed it to defy simple classifications, though it would become synonymous with the emerging terms math-core and metalcore. 

In 1999 the band shuffled its lineup, adding bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller to the mix. This five-piece incarnation would release one album together (rhythm guitarist Aaron Dalbec left the band to focus on his side project, the then-emerging Bane), 2001’s Jane Doe. The product of a decade’s worth of effort, Jane Doe became a part of hardcore’s canon, inadvertently placing Converge in a delicate chess match against itself, one that could make or break it given the massive expectations now tied to Jane’s follow-up. When it emerged three years later with its fifth full-length, You Fail Me flaunted Converge’s ability to match the mastery of Jane Doe, while also breaking all barriers as to what hardcore could accomplish. 

Breaking from its long-held tradition of opening albums with a declarative assault, “First Light” doesn’t attempt to blow the door open, instead slowly cracking it ajar. Instead, “First Light” takes Ballou’s manic guitar work and slows it to a crawl, as his ambient drone only hints at the album’s coming onslaught. Hot on the heels comes “Last Light,” the track that jumps You Fail Me’s heart rate while still establishing the band’s ability to successfully sidestep expectations. For this two-song suite, Ballou subverts his dazzling fretwork for the tempered restraint of effects pedals, allowing each chord to breathe and grow. The seismic shock continues when Bannon opens his mouth for the first time, trading his graveled grunts and soul-shaking shrieks for a delivery that sparkles with clarity. Even when he moves into a rougher register in the song’s closing coda, his words remain pristine, a testament to the band’s ability to step outside of its comfort zone in the pursuit of something fresh.

For all these changes You Fail Me’s core is still linked to the albums that preceded it. The three-song suite of “Drop Out,” “Hope Street,” and “Heartless” are contenders for some of the most vicious songs to come ripping out of the hardcore scene of the mid-aughts, but it’s something that only lasts until the album reaches its midsection. Slipping in a near-ballad would be nothing new for Converge—it expertly closed Jane Doe with the album’s gargantuan title track, and as far back as 1996’s Petitioning The Empty Sky the band was already succeeding with the emotive “Farewell Note To This City.” To that end, You Fail Me’s “In Her Shadow” suggests that if Converge ever abandoned hardcore it’d have a bright future subbing in for the off-putting madness of Nick Cave. Built on the back of subtle strums on an acoustic guitar the song is propelled by Koller’s restrained percussion, proving that even when Converge is moving slowly its still capable of covering massive amounts of ground.

Come the album’s end, “Hanging Moon” has the band tying up loose ends. Koller’s hammered snare rolls give way to guitar riffs that benefit from reverb as opposed to distortion, and Bannon returns to his un-obfuscated delivery, thematically circling back to the album’s start. For as much as the songs that make up You Fail Me shift the band’s approach, Ballou’s role as a producer and engineer does the same. It’s daring for a band that dealt in songs so claustrophobic and nihilistic to allow them to warmly open up, showing that hardcore could exude patience without losing any of its vigor. On the three albums that followed You Fail Me, Converge has continued to push back against the expectations of the genres it’s aligned itself with. Though hardcore may always be on the brink of collapsing in on itself due to its self-imposed limitations, Converge proves it will always have a future, even if it’s one that’s earned by dismantling the past.

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