Jane Doe

(Equal Vision)

In New York, music has had a hard time lately competing with the burning smell down here below Canal Street. (Note to terrorists/antiterrorists: Investigate smells more fully, as they will fuck your head right up.) Hip-hop’s confidence sounds howlingly wrong, too many singer-songwriters are playing a tiny violin I can’t hear (though Ralph Stanley has a place to crash anytime he wants), and electronic music just makes me want to punch someone. Old standby punk has become my choice–X, Wipers, Vibrators, Ramones–because I want to hear effort. I want to know that getting the job done is both vitally important and imperiled by contingency and a lack of information and skills, because that’s how I feel. Distractions and laughs just wear me down. Every photo of an Afghan burying a child needs a refusenik sound track to help me keep my lunch down. (Well, don’t look at the pictures, dumbass. But I have to.) Not strictly punk but aligned in all the right ways, Converge’s Jane Doe is the scream I need now, a noise hymn from nowhere and everywhere.

Music often operates and develops like software. New iterations replace and render irrelevant earlier versions. Songwriting, playing, and singing follow genre templates. Just as certain graphic interfaces dominate certain software, the Cookie Monster singing style dominates speed metal and the ice-cold businessman dominates Top Ten hip-hop. The genre determines the tricks you can use, the tricks other genres have consciously–perhaps legally–ceded to you and your market share.

As with software, music can be effective without being tied to a single experience, nor does it have to produce a “great work” to reassure customers that progress is being made. Listening, for instance, to a stack of Morbid Angel or Hot Boyz or Najee CDs and trying to remember more than a few distinct structures would challenge even the most well-rested fan, because individuality isn’t the point. The end is to deliver a familiar experience while adjusting the delivery package enough to mark it as different, but not so different as to alienate potential consumers or lose the connection with previous, similar software that both maker and consumer are using to establish their horizons: This will work with your system.

Jane Doe (Equal Vision) is the fourth album from Boston’s Converge, in business since 1991 and variously described as metal, hardcore, and metalcore. They get written up in metal magazines but are stamped with enough punk aesthetics to be sold in alternative boutiques like San Francisco’s Aquarius Records, which introduced me to Converge and other fine new metal. Their previous records all work to genre standards and rock unstoppably. I’ve played this album top to bottom probably more than anything this year, aside from Basement Jaxx and Destiny’s Child, and know it closely, at least structurally. But I wouldn’t necessarily recognize this band out in the world. If singer Jacob Bannon or drummer Ben Koller, both ferocious, showed up on another metal record, I’d never ID either. If Outkast’s Andre 3000, however, were lost in the middle of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, I’d be able to pick him out in two bars. Does that matter?

The lead track, “Concubine,” plants most of their flags. The song begins in death metal’s neighborhood, U-turns quickly into avant howling, swings past a Sabbathy mosh pit, and then parallel parks between late hardcore beats and indie noise syntax. “The Broken Vow” takes one of those King Crimson arpeggios and loops it below a cymbal tattoo, edging in and out of what counts for melody in Converge’s world (and a rare instance of what your grandmother would identify as singing) only to pass through a thicket of screaming and chunking, and then into just straight chunking. “Bitter and Then Some” hews to the straight hardcore polka beat, dum-pa, dum-pa, dum-pa, dum-pa, played so hard even that warhorse works, and “Homewrecker” stays close to death metal status quo; but most songs are like “Fault and Fracture,” which tells you all you need to know right there in the title.

The band’s roughed-up art metal shares code with cathartic indie rock like Drive Like Jehu and aggressive Japanese noise like the Boredoms. The band avoids the cartoon ready-mades of standard metal but then, predictably, trades catchy hooks for screams and hemiolas every time. That’s not unique to Converge; most subgenres don’t bow to the god of melody, or can’t, which keeps out the tourists. Intentionally or not, however, Jane Doe is more inviting than you’d expect. For all the white noise and aerobic drumming, Converge keep it moving like Max Martin from idea to idea, bam bam bam. They make good use of valuable time in a way that smacks of pop, though they’d probably have a group cow if someone called them “pop,” as Clear Channel would if its programmers were saddled with slotting “Fault and Fracture” into a rock block.

Here is where the forces converge–the genre (or software), larger than any individual artist, and the artist, trying to manipulate that genre (software) and rise above it. Jane Doe is its own record, but succeeds by creating a megamix aesthetic that takes things I think I know and runs everything by at the right pace; I’m in a room with music I know but can’t identify who’s doing what.

Jane Doe feels unforgiving enough that it must be specific and personal for Bannon and the band, but even my super hardcore decoder ring can’t decipher the screaming. (The lyrics, as printed, are illegible in the elegant packaging.) Without the specificity of the words, I’m left with the sound. But Converge gives me sounds I know, makes me jump as high as the ceiling will allow, and provides volume and effort enough to wear me out. I have enough to let go of without taking on the band’s life story. So, wait–is that software, or folk music?