When I was first presented with the very concept of hardcore, specifically the brand in which guys screamed unintelligibly over heavy guitars, I was absolutely not on board. Sure, I fancied myself a fan of loud, aggressive music that turned off your average listener, but this stuff was just one step too far. I found it dumb and regressive.
But that was because, like many things when you’re 15, I just wasn’t ready for it. After more exposure, in particular to my friends in the iconic (to me) screamo band In Loving Memory, the whole deal started clicking for me. And my friends in In Loving Memory told me I needed to check out this band Converge, which I did when they played the Des Moines Botanical Center in August of 2000. Seeing a hardcore band play the same type of DIY, no-stage show as the punk bands I adored was what I needed to understand what was so great about this stuff: it was fully informed by passion and fury. Those two things were, and still are, my lifeblood.
So in the fall of 2001, when Converge released Jane Doe, I was fully receptive to my friends’ recommendations, but this felt different. My friend Bill let me borrow it (because that was a thing people did back then), and he spoke about it in almost hushed tones. It was as if he couldn’t even believe what Converge had done and how much better an already great band had become. He was giving me a CD that I might not be ready to handle.
Right from the get-go, I knew what he meant. The ante had been upped, and the game had done changed. Converge’s previous records had a dense cacophony, but Jane Doe had a sheer explosiveness unlike anything that had come before it. The opening wallop of “Concubine,” coming at you like a fistful of firecrackers, has incomprehensibly loud snare drum rolls and blastbeats, with dizzying blurs of riffs that zoom by in an instant. And then it goes into a mosh-friendly two-step part for only about 15 seconds, before returning to blurry insanity and then slowing down with a sludgy riff before stopping on a dime AND THEN hurtling you right into “Fault and Fracture,” a more fleshed-out version of the chaos you’ve barely been able to deal with. It’s probably one of my favorite opening few minutes of any record ever, because it is such a firmly crazy mission statement that is either going to win over a listener forever, or make people run screaming.
And if you’re looking for screaming, vocalist Jacob Bannon has plenty of that for you. He does find some room for his “deranged lunatic” style of melodic singing, as well as some more conventional hardcore-guy shouting, but what everyone thinks about when they think of Converge is what the band members themselves refer to as “Demon Jake.” This is the sound he makes that truly does sound like a demonic creature, wholly unlike a human being. Part of this is achieved through guitarist/producer Kurt Ballou’s studio effects, but most of it is Bannon and his throat’s amazing ability to project a tone that sears the flesh right off your skin. He is able to take something like “Homewrecker,” essentially a super-charged mid-tempo punk rock song, and put it firmly in the realm of metallic hardcore just by screaming his head off.
Bannon shows his effective-enough singing chops in the middle section of “The Broken Vow,” and it’s moments like that where you understand the value of a hardcore band who can at least competently do something other than scream. His vocals are layered and haunting, until bassist Nate Newton comes in with his burly screaming, almost like he’s kicking Bannon in the ass and getting him back in gear. What follows (starting around 1:18 in that video), is what I believe to be one of the heaviest, scariest pieces of recorded music in human history. One guitar is chugging while the other makes an ungodly racket, Ben Koller is drumming like a tornado, and goodness gracious, it’s completely perfect. I noticed in a couple live videos that when they play that song now, they actually shorten this part, and I think it’s because the effect they got on the record is just impossible to reproduce live.
Another song I thought was impossible reproduce live was the 11-minute title track of Jane Doe. But when Converge played Des Moines a few months after the record came out, about midway through their set they launched right into it and tears of shock and joy nearly sprung from my eyes. It’s a long, sprawling epic achievement for a band that previously had been pegged as one-dimensional noisy hardcore. Through a few movements and changes, they get a wide range of moods, from slumber to simmering explosion. Despite being as long as a droning Pink Floyd song, “Jane Doe” stays terrifying and urgent for every single second.
Maybe the true testament of the power of Jane Doe is something said when Kurt Ballou and co-producer Matthew Ellard were interviewed at the Berklee College of Music, on the topic of this record. The interviewer rightly commented that Jane Doe launched an entire career for Converge. It’s true. 16 years later, Converge is still regarded as The Beatles of hardcore. They can tour just about everywhere in the world, sell a ton of merch, and get relatively huge crowds. There is basically no other hardcore band who can claim the same. In a genre full of talent and creativity, Converge stands alone at the top, and it’s because Jane Doe is the perfect hardcore record.