Two decades later, the metalcore legends’ magnum opus doesn’t sound like it has aged a day, nor has its impact dulled in the slightest. It’s not just the band’s best album, it’s the genre’s greatest achievement.
Originally published on 9/4/21.
There’s nothing that can be said about Converge that hasn’t been said a bazillion times already. The legendary Massachusetts-based metalcore band has blown minds and eardrums across the globe for almost three decades. Consisting of vocalist Jacob Bannon, guitarist (and producer!) Kurt Ballou, bassist Nate Newton, and drummer Ben Koller, Converge’s career has been defined by furious instrumentation, rich experimentation, and a winning fusion of metalcore and hardcore punk. They’ve cemented themselves as just about the only band from the aughts metalcore era that’s still worth caring about.
Basically, Converge has done for metalcore what Aphex Twin did for IDM, or Fiona Apple for art pop, or Death Grips for noise rap. They are rightfully seen as true innovators in their genre, and an essential part to its history. Converge have had a lasting impact that no other metalcore band has enjoyed; even today they’re still beloved by many, still critically adored. And listening to their material, it’s no wonder why, as creating top-notch, exciting, melodic hardcore music continues to be the quartet’s forte well into their career. (Even some of the most celebrated bands of all time have released a few duds.)
Converge spent the mid-to-late 90s releasing three albums, each one better than the last. Their 1994 debut Halo in a Haystack – which only printed 1,000 copies – showed considerable potential, but was bogged down by its amateurish production. 1996’s Petitioning the Empty Sky improved dramatically on every front, with stronger production, more ferocious performances, and more fully-formed songwriting. When Forever Comes Crashing, released two years later, was even more harrowing (“The Lowest Common Denominator” is still one of the most disturbing songs they’ve ever written). While Converge’s first three albums didn’t reinvent the wheel, they still showcased a talented group that was clearly on the verge of making something truly incredible. Finally, in 2001, we got Jane Doe, their ultimate claim to fame.
There’s no way around it: Jane Doe is the most lauded album from the most lauded band in hardcore music. Widely considered a metalcore masterpiece, and the greatest album in the genre, Jane Doe still stands out for its musicianship, its songwriting, its emotional power, and the pure, unadulterated savagery of its sound. And it’s not hard to see why; 20 years later it still packs an incredible punch in more ways than one. Nobody else was making this kind of music at the time, and nobody else has since.
Jane Doe is, quite simply, one of the most ferocious albums I’ve ever heard. There aren’t a whole lot of rock records out there that have reached such a level of sonic intensity, and Converge themselves haven’t released an album quite like it since. While there’s a surprising amount of dynamics here – more on that soon – the vast majority of Jane Doe is spent pulverizing the eardrums of anyone who dares to listen. The sheer loudness of this album is still remarkable after 20 years, and we have Ballou to thank for that; he has produced every single Converge album since Jane Doe. His production here is raw and unpolished, allowing the pure ugliness of the music to shine through. (Another thing that Jane Doe notably manages to achieve that so many metalcore albums haven’t: you can actually hear the bass guitar.)
Jane Doe boasts one of the most thrilling opening sequences I’ve ever heard on an album, plain and simple. “Concubine” starts the record off with an incredibly effective and harrowing musical statement: Ballou plays a brief but ominous sequence of notes before the rest of the band explodes into a breakneck-speed sequence, with blistering guitars and bass and relentless drums. Shortly after, though, the entire band has dropped out, leaving Koller to pound out five lone machine-gun snare hits that all but serve as a warning to the listener: Turn back now. (Mind you, this all happens in fifteen seconds.) The rest of the song is spent frenetically weaving through a quick, unabating series of eardrum-rupturing grooves, Bannon’s screams and howls leaving little room for emotional interpretation. It’s an incredibly gripping and immediate opening statement made all the more stunning by its mere 79-second runtime.
“Concubine” segues seamlessly into “Fault and Fracture,” a song whose defining characteristics are the pounding, heart-racing guitar chords and drum blasts that practically clobber the listener’s skull in during the song’s opening moments. The intensity never lets up for the song’s three-minute runtime; there isn’t a single solitary moment in “Fault and Fracture” where you’re allowed to breathe. Boasting dizzying guitar riffs, blood-curdling shrieks, and percussion that has probably either lifted or killed the hopes of many an aspiring drummer, the song itself holds even more power than “Concubine.” The two songs create an amazing one-two punch of an opening that sets the tone for Jane Doe flawlessly.
The musicianship here, as with all Converge albums, is incredible. However, the performances on Jane Doe feel more raw and intense than they do on any other record by the band. Perhaps the most technically impressive contributor here is the then-20-year-old Koller. Throughout the album he pounds out incredibly fast and elaborate drum patterns, yet he somehow never overdoes it or sounds like he’s just showing off. Ballou’s guitar work is magnificent, as well, weaving between rapid, crushingly heavy riffs and soft, ominous plucks like it was nothing. Newton’s bass playing – which, again, you can discern from the guitar – is just as impressive, providing an essential foundation for Ballou’s sonic destruction. And Bannon, of course, shreds his vocal chords for almost the entire length of the album; he actually manages to scream in different registers between tracks, helping to provide a unique flavor to each one.
Jane Doe manages to strike the perfect balance between the atonal fury of past albums and the melodic hardcore the band would embrace more fully later on. In between all the brutally loud guitar work and pounding drums, there are some genuinely catchy grooves to be found on tracks like “Hell to Pay,” “Homewrecker,” and “Thaw.” The latter – arguably my favorite song on the album – features its most purely insane riff, one that makes you feel like you’re falling down the stairs during a panic attack. There are countless moments on Jane Doe that are genuinely stressful to listen to, so much so that people with high blood pressure should probably steer clear.
Another characteristic of Jane Doe that has aged like fine wine is its unwillingness to keep itself in a box. For all the skull-smashing fury on here – and there is plenty of it – the sound of this album is not only strikingly dynamic, but also stylistically varied. Whether it’s the scorching hardcore punk of “Distance and Meaning,” the slow, tortured balladry of “Hell to Pay,” the despondent doom metal of “Phoenix in Flight,” or the mid-paced finality of the 11-minute closing title track, Jane Doe offers much more than your typical metalcore release.
Additionally, there’s a surprising level of variation in the general mixing between songs. For example, on “Phoenix in Flight,” the despondent vocals are buried in the mix, the brooding guitars and bass taking center stage. But then the very next track, the very brief but truly terrifying “Phoenix in Flames,” features almost no guitar work at all, focusing instead on drums and vocals. It culminates in a heavily distorted finale, Koller and Bannon’s parts seemingly even louder than everything else on the album. It’s jarring, but in the best way possible.
Usually I have a paragraph or two about the lyrics on the album I’m reviewing. However, one of the most initially puzzling things about Jane Doe is its predominant lack of discernable lyrics. Look up the official ones online, and you’ll find beautiful, poetically devastating words about the dissipation of a relationship. But if you’re looking for what’s actually being said on the album, you’ll be disappointed: these words rarely match up at all with Bannon’s pained shrieks. (I’m not sure Bannon himself even knows exactly what he’s screaming for most of this album.) This is because the vocals on Jane Doe put far more emphasis on emotion rather than words, as if Bannon is deliberately using his vocals as just another instrument in the band. And every single ounce of emotion is poured out on every single second of the record; Jane Doe is truly difficult to listen to at times because of all the psychological trauma being forcefully expressed by Bannon.
If I have any real quibbles with this album whatsoever, it’s that the midpoint of the album – the tracks “The Broken Vow,” “Bitter and Then Some,” and “Heaven in Her Arms” – feels a little too same-y. These three tracks are definitely harder to tell apart than anything else in Jane Doe’s tracklist. Perhaps it’s because they’re all sandwiched together, share similar tempos, and are in C minor; there’s a part of me that feels the group could have switched it up a little more in this leg of the record. Note, however, that this is the only part of the album that suffers from this, and it only brings the album down a couple of pegs; the offending songs are still pummeling, thrilling, ever-changing slabs of metalcore fury.
Jane Doe is one of those albums that comes to define its genre, influencing countless artists in the following years. It’s the Illmatic, the Downward Spiral, the OK Computer of metalcore. And the fact that Converge has continued to release excellent albums after this one – proving that this was no fluke – is nothing short of extraordinary. (I’m surprised that I only discovered Converge in the past few years; this album totally would have been on my iPod nano in my early teens.) 20 years later, Jane Doe still stands as a torturous, merciless, sickening, and absolutely marvelous document of metalcore that should be the gateway album for anyone interested in the genre. Stay gold, guys.
Revisit Jane Doe on Apple Music or Spotify below.