THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT: CONVERGE’S AXE TO FALL
An initial impression of Axe to Fall, Converge’s latest bruiser, is that it’s a little too simplistic: the vast majority of the album find the band rocking more balls out than they have since their early days. Even “Worms Will Feed” and “Damages,” two slower tracks, feel more like uneasy breathing room than the expansive, emotional dalliances of You Fail Me’s “In Her Shadow” or No Heroes’ “Grim Rose/Black Heart.” Even despite Axe to Fall’s two further-out-than-ever-before closing songs, the majority of the album feels slight, missing a key element of what had made the band as exceptional as they are up until now. With No Heroes finding the band at once at their grindiest and most experimental, something about Axe to Fall feels empty.
Of course, initial impressions don’t do a Converge album justice; if the band are known for anything, it’s marrying the deceptively simple and the brilliantly complex. Despite its tendency to be more gruff than any modern Converge release, Axe to Fall features some of the band’s tightest, most interesting songwriting, as well as providing one of the most satisfying repeat listens of any Converge album. Compact but alarmingly dense, the band have never been this comfortable putting their heads down and charging at you, with a relentlessness that’s almost militaristic in its approach. More than just a bunch of throw-aways before its wildly expansive ending, Axe to Fall stands eye level with their genre-defining full length debut (Petitioning the Empty Sky) or their genre-shattering masterpiece (Jane Doe). Though foolish and cynical to think otherwise, the band are still as good as they’ve ever been, with no signs of coasting despite having been around exponentially longer than most of the hardcore bands they came up with.
At its heaviest, Axe to Fall is disarming in its intensity: the title track’s unrelenting guitar noodling finds the band at its most technical, the Southern-fried mosh riff that closes out “Wishing Well” manages to top the pummeling hardcore that came before it, and “Dead Beat” and “Slave Driver” find the band as violent and devastating as ever. As stated before, most of the album feels like too much at first. But returning to it reveals that the songs, though interchangeable to some, have their own distinct personalities with a newfound furor and intensity (impressive for a band already very well known for their fury and intensity) absent in Converge’s most aggressive past work. The album’s busload of guest stars most likely add to Axe to Fall’s eccentricities and flourishes, but at its core, the album still belongs to Converge.
Of course, what most will mention when talking about this album is not the tightly constructed ragers, but the trips to the outer reaches of the bands sound. Though– honest to God– glockenspiel is employed subtly on “Dead Beat,” the band really lift off on the album’s two closing songs, the ragged “Cruel Bloom” and the bleak-but-beautiful “Wretched World.” The former is so reminiscent of Neurosis’ scorched earth country that Steve von Till actually sings on it; Kurt Ballou’s howling leads make it sound like a post-apocalyptic Bob Seger song. “Wretched World” takes things even further, sounding like it was performed in the wreckage of the havoc the album’s previous 12 songs had wrought. Featuring everyone from Genghis Tron– right down to Mookie Singerman providing wonderfully muted yet evocative vocals– the song bleakly closes out the album in a surprising fashion, both in where one initially though the album was headed and what Converge are still able to do.
Of course, Axe to Fall is, ultimately, an album of surprises: surprising the band can still be this savage but still provide new perspective, surprising that they can employ so many guest musicians but still ultimately coming out like sounding like themselves, and surprising that, after two decades at this, they still seemingly have a lot of new ground to cover. Though initial impressions may mar it into today’s point-and-click insta-culture, the album is one to grow on, finding new textures in its most brutal songs and marveling in its most expansive moments. It’s both a showcase of what the band are great at doing and what they’re still capable of getting done. For a band that had a notable career even before Jane Doe, Axe to Fall proves that they’re in it for the long haul, and that, in the wake of graying hair and growing paunches, the band will continue to impress the metal and hardcore communities until they choose to stop. May that time not be soon.
(4 ½ out of 5 horns)