15 years — Thoughts on Jane Doe by Converge

Like a lot of teenagers, I went through an angry phase. It manifests itself in different ways for everyone, I’m sure, but music was a really big thing for me. As I’ve mentioned before, it started with the whole nu-metal thing — Korn, Slipknot, Marilyn Manson et al — and then my mum and dad intervened and started pushing me in the direction of perhaps the more “traditional” options. It was through this that I was introduced to The Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69, Led Zeppelin and so on. Am I grateful for this? Of course. But since when did young people choose their edgy cultural materials to please their parents?

I remember getting massively latched onto punk around the age of 14, and made regular trips to Brighton to get records from the Punker Bunker on Sydney Street. It was a tiny basement underneath this clothing shop called, if I remember correctly, Immediate. The owner, Buzz, is to this day a key player in Brighton’s music scene, organising most of the shows that come through the city. Punker Bunker’s DIY photocopied A6 paper flyers were a constant presence in my teenage years, and it was thanks to the efforts of that small group of people that I was able to see some of my favourite bands in intimate venues like the Engine Rooms (RIP), The Hob Goblin, Concorde 2 and a place near the Level that I think was called Pressure Point? I know there’s some Brightoners reading this so please lend me a hand.

Punker Bunker

Punker Bunker

Anyway, Punker Bunker introduced me to a lot of modern punk and ska, namely bands like Big D & The Kids Table, Capdown, Link 80, Lawrence Arms, Captain Everything, Polysics, Blue Meanies, The Chinkees, and so on. Link 80 were a particularly important band for me; their vocalist, Nick Traina (son of adult-romance novelist Danielle Steele [I know, right?]) killed himself at the age of 19, and the underlying pain in the band’s music both before and after his death resonated on some level.

So from modern music, back to the past, and then back to the present. This, in turn, led me back to the American punk and hardcore scene of the 80s with Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Agent Orange, Black Flag and Dead Kennedys. Considering how much my dad loved British punk, it was very satisfying to hear his disdain that I was listening to Dead Kennedys, a band whose name he described as something along the lines of “utterly atrocious”. Still, when you listen to an album like Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, you can hear some elements of a band that was doing something undeniably new with the genre, even if it was just Jello Biafra’s fucking bizarre vocal style.

And onwards, into the post-hardcore phase with bands like Drive Like Jehu, Fugazi, Hot Snakes and Glass Jaw in the late 80s and early 90s, whilst on the heavier side you had bands like Botch and Dillinger Escape Plan. I understand that I’m rattling off a load of names, but I guess my point is that in the relative blink of an eye, I educated myself about an infinitely expansive musical history, and the ebbs and flows of sound and energy that came with it. Turns out a lot of teenagers like me had been angry for a very long time, each finding their own unique way of expressing it for their time.

Around the age of 15, metalcore, emo, death metal, grindcore and all manner of combinations were in their heyday, and Brighton was a pretty respectable epicentre. Thanks to the likes of Punker Bunker we had bands like Norma Jean, War from a Harlot’s Mouth, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan playing right on our doorstep, but the city itself was also the birthplace of the likes of Architects, Johnny Truant, Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and The Ghost of a Thousand. Granted, we also gave the world The Kooks, but you can’t win them all.

This was in the golden age of MySpace as well, and as hard as it is to believe now, back in 2006 the MySpace music player was the fucking oracle. I can’t even tell you the number of bands I discovered as a result of the four-song induction a band’s MySpace profile gave you. I’ve already listed more than enough bands, to write any more would be a purely self-indulgent exercise, but let’s just say that a lot of them had very long, semi-ironic names.

I was hit by a big wave of nostalgia a few months back and decided to go back through my mind trying to remember all those bands and trying to get hold of all the old records. This might shock you, but at the age of 24 it turns out that Arsonists Get All The Girls’ ‘Hits from the Bow’ isn’t actually very good. To be honest, it was the anger that primarily attracted me, which bands like that provided by the tonne.

I must have been 15 when somebody introduced me to Converge, and like almost everyone I started with their 2001 album, Jane Doe. The other day I was inadvertently reminded that September 4th marked 15 years since the album was released (thanks Sean Mahon), and it got me thinking about that album a lot.

janedoe

As I’m sure is often the case with Jane Doe, it was the artwork that first caught my attention. Even if you’ve never heard of Converge — fuck it, even if you’ve never even liked metal — I feel like you’ve probably encountered the artwork for Jane Doe. For one reason or another, it became a pretty iconic image that I’d seen years previously on t-shirts, posters, MySpace skins, tattoos and so on, but never known the significance.

As it turns out, Jane Doe would come to be heralded as one of the greatest metal albums of all time. At different points, by different people, at different levels, for different reasons, it has been described as Converge’s magnum opus; the symbol of what hardcore would become in the 21st century; a genre-defining record; a triumph of contemporary punk; one of the most important records of our generation. For that reason, there’s really no point to me writing another article talking about why this album is objectively important. I’m just going to talk about what makes this album important to me.

As I’ve explained, by this point I’d already encountered my fair share of “angry bands”, in all manner of incarnations. As I said in my article about Daughters a few weeks back, one of the things that I feel now is how many of these bands were so formulaic in their attempts to be more extreme. Turn up, play faster, breakdown harder, more blastbeats, more pig squeals.

Converge

But when I first listened to Jane Doe, something hit me really hard. Far from an attempt to convey an emotion, this record was an embodiment of pure fucking rage. The moment you listen to the first track, ‘Concubine’, you know you’re listening to something different. The recording style is thick and muddy. The drums sound so distorted and clipped that you feel like it’s been recorded wrong. The vocals are almost instrumental, and completely unlike any other band, closer to an expression of intense pain than hyper-macho gutter vocals and death-metal screams.

I remember the song titles really capturing me also, particularly ‘Bitter and Then Some’. There was something about that which really resonated with me, perhaps the feeling of an intense anger, definable only up to a point. I’m angry, but so much more than that which I can’t even put into words.

The same is true of the lyrics, some of which still encapsulate certain teenage emotions so effectively; ‘You were my last great war'; ‘Those nights we had and the trust we lost/ The sleep that fled me and the heart I lost'; ‘She burns as bright as the sun/ and she falls darker than night/ She shines as light as these days/ and she fades faster than time’.

For the first 11 tracks of Jane Doe, you’re thrown like rag doll through a meat grinder, between heartbreak, anguish, loss, betrayal, despondency, alienation and gut-wrenching rage. I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to ‘The Broken Vow’ on repeat just to experience that transition from blasting punk drumming to cinematic cymbal punches, back into furious crescendo, and back to blasting snare hits, and all in the space of two minutes.

But the final track, ‘Jane Doe’, is kind of where the whole album is tied together. I’m a sucker for bands who can write a killer closing track — Jimmy Eat World do it, Architects did a pretty solid job on their debut Nightmares EP, and Genghis Tron’s ‘Board Up the House’ has a final track that genuinely makes me feel like I’m drowning — but the final track on Jane Doe works in a different way, because whilst it retains all of the fury of the preceding tracks, it turns all of that into something a lot more fragile.

The guitar melody isn’t quite major key and it isn’t quite minor, neither empowered nor downtrodden, and the lyrics reveal the root of all those previously expressed feelings; ‘Faster than light and faster than time/ That’s how memory works/ … / Out of every awkward day/ Out of every tongue-tied loss/ I want out’.

I’m notorious for sometimes going a bit too deep into the meaning of things — I say this as I approach 1600 words on a metal album that’s already been written about to death — but I think what makes Jane Doe such an important album is not only does it perfectly capture and express those confusing emotions that many of us feel as teenagers and beyond. There’s an element of Jane Doe that tries to ask why. Of course this is most prominent in Jacob Bannon’s lyrics, where declarations of ‘Death to cowards, traitors and empty words’ are quickly followed by ‘You are the everything and the in between/ Push on and soar higher’.

But sonically, Jane Doe is a powerful expression of those very same emotions, from melodies built of equal parts bitterness and bereavement, to a production style that makes you wonder if everything is so loud it could fill a stadium, or if it’s actually just being crushed under the weight of it all. It isn’t an album for everyone, and it was never meant to be, but if you listened to it at some point in your life and felt even the tiniest part resonating, the chances are you’ll find those same pieces scattered throughout the music and be glad it was there when you needed it.

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