Breaking Upwards. Converge, Live at the Highline Ballroom
Total sensory overload. That’s what a Converge live show is. Every line of communication, from our bodies to the matter around us, maximally utilized. If a review of a concert is both description and judgment, then I will simply say total sensory overload, and satisfy both characteristics. Bodies in the dark, bodies in violent motion, bodies in flight, bodies colored blue by contact, these bodies are the five sense conduits in the live conversation Converge has with its fans.
Converge started out like many other hardcore punk bands in the early Nineties, playing all ages shows, mixing in classic punk covers with new raw material, becoming part of the storied Boston punk and hardcore scene. However, they soon moved far past the “Three chords and the Truth” maxim of the movement. Beginning with 1996’s Petitioning the Empty Skies, and releasing When Forever Comes Crashing Down the following year, Converge began to embrace noisier, thrashier, more experimental sounds. Anthems such as “When Forever Comes Crashing Down” and “The Saddest Day” manifested these progressions, mixing the raw-throated howls of singer Jacob Bannon, with the more layered, rusty-knife riffs of guitarist Kurt Ballou, and the polyrhythmic drumming insanity of Ben Koller.
Their sound matured with 2001’s Jane Doe, an album that saw Converge transcend the sonic and thematic limitations of hardcore, manifested simply as loud, fast, and emotionally direct, the heart always worn on bloodied sleeves. With Jane Doe, things slowed down, got more dissonant. Songs like “Homewrecker” and “Phoenix in Flames” seem to tell stories beyond basic youthful disaffection, focusing on familial tensions, and even contemporary feminine angst. These tales of humanity in grey and red tones go down with slowed guitar lines, drums that fade in and out like locusts, and vocals that in a fairly limited palate manage to convey everything from positive self-affirmation to “Jane Doe’s definitive chants of “NO LOVE/NO HOPE”. These themes would continue to be refined and stretched in later releases such as You Fail Me and Axe to Fall, all of which brought some new tricks and sounds to the table.
While Converge’s studio output remains a singularly affecting, uniquely aggressive oeuvre of extreme music, their live show is where these themes and sounds meet the bodies of their extremely devoted fans. Onstage is where the real impact of Converge is felt. The Highline Ballroom is a small venue, holding no more than 300 or so, and every inch of it was taken up by black clad, often inked fans, ready for their musical and emotional pummeling. With the room suitably packed, hot, and sweaty, Converge took the stage, and the emotionally positive mayhem commenced. Tearing right into “Concubine”, the angular, siren like lead blast off Jane Doe, these 20 year touring veterans settled directly into their comfortable onstage skins, conducting the war we in the pit waged against our emotions and bodies.
Every Converge show is basically the same. The band bashes at their instruments, Jacob Bannon stands at the edge of the stage, alternately howling into the mic and thrusting it at the crowd, giving them their voice. Meanwhile, everyone not pressed up against Bannon at the edge is in the pit, shoving, pushing, throwing their punches and aggression at the air, in time to the relentless thrust of the music. There is little light, only dark cathartic spaces. Converge changed the script slightly this time around however, mixing in more of their slower, emotionally nuanced pieces, such as “You Fail Me”, and the title track of their most recent album, “All We Love We Leave Behind”. There, in the quiet pulsing black, the audience moved slowly, girding themself for the onslaught promised by such measured aural restraint. And when Converge tore into “Trespasses,” also off the latest, and “Dark Horse,” off 2009’s Axe to Fall, the full physical and mental force of three hundred determined people pushing each other and themselves to the brink of physical ruin burst forth.
Standing there, with my arms pushed out in defensive positions, straining my eyes to keep watch on errant stage divers, I was struck by the equations of the experience. There is little light at a Converge show, little space for positive thought to bleed through. The lyrics are generally variegated tales of woe, the sounds are sharp and lean, cutting through any pretense, and the spatial dimensions of the venue are rife with danger. This is to say nothing of the fans launching themselves off the stage, often taking down several moshers as they land. Here in the dark, where nothing seems to grow, one wonders: why? Why do these people court potential aural and physical oblivion over and over again?
For me, the answer seems to be simple: the pure joy of the communal experience, the shared bloodletting. You are shoving yourself into others, off the stage, against Jacob Bannon’s face because you must, because all other avenues of communication have been exhausted. This is how you will make sense of this life. We are all here because we all need to be here, and in our shared sorrows and dark vacancies, a real light can emerge. It is a light because it is our light, created together in a space whose safety can seem so counterintuitive to an outsider. Spend some time with the music. Venture out to a show. Discover how it is that Converge can create so much by only adding negatives.