There are legions of Converge fans who’d consider Jane Doe the band’s greatest album, but Jacob Bannon isn’t one of them. The album has grown to become the most emblematic representation of the Massachusetts hardcore innovators’ continuously progressing take on heavy music. They’ve played it in its entirety for anniversary shows and curated festivals, even releasing a full-length live version of the record—the only one in their catalog to receive such treatment. The illustrated visage of its cover art is silkscreened on thousands of shirts and tattooed on just as many forearms, recognizable even without a single word to identify it. If you’ll forgive me for using a word that’s a little long in the tooth, it’s iconic.
Bannon’s very nature goes against putting any of their albums on a pedestal, frequently remarking that their best album is one they’ve still yet to make. Yet in 2017 he did acknowledge the amount of growth an album like Jane Doe represents: “I think that the Jane album, you hear more refinement in the approach and in the overall aggression of the record. And it’s a cohesive presentation. Whereas the other records are getting there, they’re not quite to that point just yet.” Five years ago, in an interview for a magazine that no longer exists, and whose website no longer has a readable archive, he also clarified to me his position on always trying to reach that much farther: “I know if I didn’t connect with something in a more intense way or a more evolved way than I had previously, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the process at all,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing, you should be the best version of you when you’re making stuff. If I felt like I was a lesser version of an artist than I was five years ago, then I wouldn’t want to make art.”
If Jane Doe isn’t Converge’s best album—and that “if” rests on shaky ground—it’s certainly the most transformational. It can best be understood as the album on which Converge matured into the band we know them today. From the beginning, the group thrived on maintaining a kind of fearless, forward momentum, but on Jane Doe that encompassed the whole of the horizon before them, a vast spectrum of shades, textures and directions in heavy music to be explored and catalyzed.
Their progression happened quickly. The first incarnation of Converge formed in Salem, Massachusetts in the early ’90s, when its members were just teenagers—a conventional hardcore band by default of having only the experience of being as young and green as they were, but they didn’t allow themselves to get comfortable within that space. The direct assault of 1994’s Halo in a Haystack transitioned into the more technical approach of 1996’s Petitioning the Empty Sky and the dark, discordant tones of 1998’s When Forever Comes Crashing. All the while, Bannon and guitarist Kurt Ballou remained the only consistent members, the lineup of the band rotating with each emergence from the studio.
There’s a ferocity to Jane Doe that feels more immediate and visceral than its predecessors, some of the credit for which goes to the incendiary performances by two then-new additions to the band. It’s their first full-length record with bassist Nate Newton, previously of Jesuit, taking over a two-year stint from Cave In‘s Stephen Brodsky, who later rejoined the group for Bloodmoon: I. Newton had been with the band nearly three years by that point, a well seasoned and urgent presence in the group’s expanding sonic sphere. It’s also the first Converge album to feature drummer Ben Koller, previously of Force Fed Glass and Bastion, whose double-bass technique brought an additional level of savagery to what was at the time their most scorching set of music. The addition of Koller’s drumming is striking—never before had the band unleashed something as excoriating as the 42 seconds of drums and screaming in “Phoenix in Flames.”
The band also had a bigger budget to work with and three different studio sessions in which to track it—one of which found them next door to James Taylor, who was recording in adjacent studio and whose engineer kept complaining about the obnoxious miscreants in the neighboring space. Unintentional needling of folk-rock legends aside, the additional funds and time offered them even more freedom to explore than sessions for prior albums had allowed. Crafted with the unified goal in mind of writing “a hardcore record the kids were going to hate,” Converge abandoned the strictures of genre in favor of work that ebbs and flows and self-immolates, its one constant being the harrowing rush of emotion at its core.
Fittingly, some of the sketches for Jane Doe began with Bannon and Ballou’s experimental Supermachiner side project, and though it’s not an album entirely without precedent—bands such as Botch, Cave In and Coalesce having released albums with comparably fluid boundaries and throttling intensity in just the years prior—its arrival felt like the beating of a new path. Hardcore and metal intertwine with strains of noise rock and shoegaze, apocalyptic dirges juxtaposed against exercises in superhuman technicality.
The opening rush of “Concubine” is a pure blast of soul-purging desperation, made more potent as it bleeds into the pairing of Ballou’s lightning-fingered licks on “Fault and Fracture.” Not even the most harrowing of black metal’s rectory torchers had harnessed anything with such blistering immediacy by the time of its release in September of 2001, and that it never remained in one place too long spoke of a restlessness on the part of Converge that felt as if they were always one-upping themselves through feats of instrumental acrobatics and emotional exorcism.
The intensity is only the half of it; there’s an almost playful curiosity to how the album progresses, with the noise rock scrape of “Distance and Meaning” and menacing, low-key groove of “Hell to Pay” colliding with a straightforward ripper like “Homewrecker.” “Phoenix in Flames” finds its gracefully dense shoegaze counterpart in the majestic “Phoenix in Flight,” while the rhythmic whiplash of “Thaw” sets the highest bar for Converge’s definition of extreme. There’s even a mournful beauty in the 11-minute sprawl of the title track, as breathtaking song as Converge ever released—which isn’t a statement on Jacob Bannon’s lung capacity.
Fascinatingly, for something so inflammatory and apocalyptic, Jane Doe is at its core a breakup album—a cryptic one with few specific details to speak of other than the narrator being obliterated by his own anguish, but a breakup album all the same. “At the time I was going through a great deal of negativity in my life,” Bannon said in a 2008 Decibel interview. “When I was refining the lyrics, it was apparent that the album thematically dealt with that relationship disintegrating. The album was my lyrical purging of that experience.”
Neither as masterful in its pettiness as Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear nor as morose as Beck’s Sea Change, Jane Doe is essentially a 50-minute-long primal scream ritual in the face of what feels like a devastating loss. Extreme metal and hardcore rarely lend themselves to this kind of vulnerability, though the whys and hows of it all are cloaked in cryptic phrases like “With anguish my crown and heartbreak my throne/I lay claim to this day—no love, no hope.” Bannon’s brimstone-coated verses are rarely so easily parsed amid the chaos of the group’s intricate and really fucking loud compositions; he had even originally designed the artwork and inserts without any printed words as a means of emphasizing its inscrutability. (Ironically the year I developed an obsession with this album was the year I got married; it wasn’t the message that resonated with me most—what of it I could actually decipher at the time—but the unguarded emotion itself, which the irony-laced indie records of my early twenties simply didn’t provide.)
Jane Doe is as much an album about endings as it is a new beginning, a Death card in musical form. As Newton and Koller were welcomed as full-time members of the band—where they’ve remained for over 20 years and counting—the album also saw the band part ways with guitarist Aaron Dalbec. Though Newton has expressed regret over Dalbec’s expulsion from the band, his duties playing in both Converge and Bane had led the rest of the group to determine that he couldn’t do both, and they ultimately made the decision for him. And for as much as this album, thematically, feels like a monument to a specific kind of mid-twenties uncertainty and emotional struggle, there’s a newfound maturity in both acknowledging that and transcending it.
A thorny entanglement of loss, regret and pain, Jane Doe is an immaculate monument to shitty feelings. I wouldn’t blame the members of Converge for not feeling so attached to this record if only for wanting to leave behind some of its darkness—though if anything, its successor, 2004’s You Fail Me, only mined that darkness even deeper. The mystique behind Jane Doe even took a slight hit when the inspiration for its instantly recognizable cover art was revealed to be an Italian Marie Claire cover featuring model Audrey Marnay. But what it perhaps loses in mystery it makes up for in being an enduring triumph of reinvention, rebirth and massive, impenetrable sound. As Converge sets one version of itself ablaze, something even more powerful rises from the ashes.
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