Greg Woodin looks back on this cathartic metallic hardcore masterpiece
Converge’s Jane Doe is not for the fainthearted. It’s atonal and abrasive from start to finish, with tortured vocals, frenetic drums and discordant guitars crashing together in a cacophony of claustrophobic noise. This is metalcore by name, but Jane Doe has about as much in common with the likes of Bullet For My Valentine and Parkway Drive as the new Harry Styles LP. Okay, maybe I’m putting it a bit strong, but those expecting catchy hooks and polished guitar harmonies should turn back now or otherwise adjust their expectations. Jane Doe is ugly, rough around the edges and certainly not an easy listen… but if you can look past the unrelenting sonic sludge the band projectile vomits into a kind of ‘music’, it’s actually pretty beautiful. Seriously.
Believe me when I say you will not understand a single word vocalist Jacob Bannon screams throughout this entire album. In fact, the vocals are probably the main thing that will stop a first-time listener giving the album a chance, which is a shame: Bannon’s vocals are so integral to the aesthetic of Jane Doe that it is impossible to replace them and retain the album’s sheer visceral impact. In anguished shrieks Bannon pledges ‘Dear, I’ll stay gold’ over and over on opener ‘Concubine’, a short-acting shot of adrenaline that kicks the album into gear without warning. Perfect vocal technique it isn’t (I’m not sure how Bannon’s vocal chords survived the recording of this album) but, like much of Jane Doe, deference to classical music theory here is generally avoided in favour of pure, unbridled catharsis.
It’s perhaps unfortunate that these indecipherable vocals disguise some of the most profound, poetic lyrics in metalcore. Even the lyrics you can make out often bear only a passing resemblance to the lyrics listed in the liner notes of the album, with Bannon preferring to vent his emotions freely without adhering too strictly to the words he’s prepared. But take a look at the lyrics and you’ll get a deeper feel for the central theme of the album: the disenchantment with love that Bannon felt following the bitter ending of a long-term relationship. Love is compared to death itself on album highlight ‘Heaven in Her Arms’, and on ‘The Broken Vow’ Bannon promises ‘I’ll take my love to the grave’, unwilling to put himself in such a vulnerable position again. At its core, Jane Doe is a testament to the power of love – but in decidedly bleaker terms than you might be familiar with.
Certainly, no album essentially full of love songs has approached the writing of its music with such aggression as is on display here, but that doesn’t mean Jane Doe is all flat-out, high-octane stuff. There are some softer moments here, too, like the menacing ‘Hell to Pay’, which boasts a brooding bassline courtesy of Nate Newton and arpeggios that float above the mix like vultures circling prey. ‘Phoenix in Flight’ is another slow-burner, lulling the listener into a false sense of security before exploding in spasms of feedback and muddy power chords at the death. Even the clean vocals showcased on these tracks are distorted and warped beyond comprehension, becoming just another texture in the music rather than a focal point.
Next up is ‘Bitter and Then Some’, the closest to classic metalcore the album comes, where Bannon prays for ‘Death to cowards, traitors, and empty words / to those adorned with the touch of rose petals / and the blessed gift of forgetfulness’ (or at least that’s what the lyrics booklet says). This is followed by ‘Phoenix in Flames’, a hellish, fiery rampage consisting solely of drums and vocals. Here, Ben Koller’s fierce drumwork can be heard clearest, tom rolls and kick drums tumbling around in a chaotic yet accomplished display that represents the purest expression of rage on the whole album. As one YouTube comment has it, Bannon goes full ‘hellcat’ on this song, sounding like a caged beast with a bloody steak dangled just beyond its reach. Kurt Ballou’s guitar work on penultimate track ‘Thaw’ is borderline psychotic, careening recklessly between low, predatory guitar chugs and mid-range, amelodic fare that sounds like the soundtrack to some deranged circus. And there’s the title track and album closer, ‘Jane Doe’, an eleven-minute epic complete with singing (!), artificial harmonics and emotive string bends that culminates in some truly bloodcurdling screams from Bannon.
With Jane Doe, Converge created a masterpiece of raw, unfiltered emotion, using music’s most aggressive, hostile medium to put a new slant on the devastation of heartbreak. In pop music, love is exalted above all other emotions, but little attention is shown to the true desolation that love can leave in its wake. On Jane Doe, Converge show that beauty and ugliness are just two sides of the same coin. It is this that makes the album such a classic of its genre, and one that will stand as the prototype for metallic hardcore for years to come.