Finding the beauty in heavy metal
While the mainstream view on metal can sometimes reduce it to an angst-filled music genre for sulky teenagers, there are a spate of bands and supporters making intelligent cases to the contrary. We speak to some of the key players around the world and in the UAE
Alongside plentiful tattoos, emotive American metallers Converge wear their hearts on their collective sleeves.
The Massachusetts quartet’s website URL – www.convergecult.com – says it all in terms of their appeal to a loyal legion of fans of heavy music.
Today, the band release The Dusk In Us, their first album for five years and their ninth in an uncompromising career that has spanned a quarter of a century.
Like many of their peers, they have flourished without much in the way of mainstream recognition or award-show successes that become more-palatable genres, but they do have something of a signature record: 2001’s breakthrough success Jane Doe, their fourth album.
An unflinchingly honest account of the breakdown of vocalist Jacob Bannon’s long-term relationship, it not only established Converge as a band who could play – and later headline – rock festivals around the world, but it also marked them out as cut from a somewhat different cloth.
At the turn of the millennium, the dying embers of nu-metal and its oft-misogynistic overtones were still casting an unpleasant shadow across heavy music.
Yet here was a band who, beneath Bannon’s anguished howl, wielded lyrics that could easily be repurposed as eloquent poetry, turning a subject that could, in other hands, be uncomfortably macho and even boorish, in an altogether more life-affirming direction.
Bannon, now 41, rejects any notion that metal should be seen as a genre for angst-filled teenagers.
“It’s an archaic way of looking at music,” he asserts. “That’s a way that somebody in the 1950s would talk about rock ‘n’ roll, right? They’d say: ‘This is just for young people.’ Well those young people who started that then are, like, 80 years old [now]. I could say the same thing about fine art and how contemporary art appeals to a certain demographic, but that’s not really accurate, because that demographic is always growing and changing.
“It’s pretty rare that I meet somebody who’s in, say, their 50s getting into heavy music for the first time, but it’s definitely happened.
“I’ve talked to people in their 30s who’ve never really connected with what a band like us do, then all of a sudden, it clicks. And that’s just as valid. There isn’t really a path that needs to be taken to have somebody connect with music – if they connect, they connect.”
He explains that their latest album, which takes its title from one its tracks, has an existential darkness at its core, filled as it is with the brand of deep thinking that has come to define Converge.
“The Dusk in Us, the song, is a pretty straightforward exploration into the concept of an infinite psychological darkness that I think everybody somehow fights through on a daily basis – including myself. I think anybody who struggles with that kind of thing can relate to that theme. And it’s a common theme that does appear in our music, mainly because I’m always working through these things,” Bannon says.
“All of our songs have always been personal songs about my life and the life of the band members and things we go through on a daily basis. People seem to connect with heavy music in a way that’s quite personal, because it’s incredibly expressive stuff. A lot of people who connect with it, [do so] at certain dark times in their lives.”
In April, Converge will headline and part-curate the Roadburn Festival in Dutch city Tilburg, where they will play two albums (2004’s You Fail Me and The Dusk in Us) in their entirety.
The annual extravaganza of heavy music is at the vanguard of presenting such artists: since 1999, it has taken an increasingly artistic bent to the task in hand, with shows featuring albums performed in full, experimental sets from established bands and acts hand-picked by scene-leaders such as Converge.
“Heavy music doesn’t have to be all blast-beats and screamed vocals,” says Roadburn founder Walter Hoeijmakers. “Of course it can be, and that can be exhilarating, but there are so many other facets to ‘heaviness’ that artists are exploring with incredible results. Converge are definitely a part of that. What they are doing is very important to heavy music. Roadburn is all about redefining heavy – inspiring bands and our attendees to push the envelope, whether it’s about their art or the perception of it.”
Hoeijmakers also agrees with Bannon’s assertions about the music’s longevity, as well as considering the importance of mainstream acceptance. “To describe metal as a genre that people grow out of does a disservice to the artistic ability of those who create it,” he says.
“It’s not strictly necessary for metal musicians to be recognised at major music awards. I would hope that a Grammy nomination, or similar, would give their career a boost, but I don’t think it would change the relationship that their fans have with their music.”
Closer to home, that thinking is echoed by Barney Ribeiro, founder and guitarist/songwriter of Dubai-based band Nervecell, who have supported some of the biggest names in metal, including Metallica.
The trio released their latest album Past, Present… Torture in August. Their influences also lie in some of the more-experimental and progressive names in heavy music.
“Metal has always been the underdog genre that the mass media will always frown upon,” Ribeiro says. “Metal was never trendy and never meant to be trendy, so the old excuse of ‘yeah, I used to listen to it when I was a lot younger’ or ‘I’ve grown out of it’ is a joke. I don’t necessary think it gets the respect it deserves, but that’s fine because not everyone can also understand the technicalities, compositions, dynamics and time signatures that this genre includes.
“It just isn’t meant for everyone, and we are perfectly fine with that.”
He is glowing in his appraisal of Converge’s importance in pushing things forward.
“Unlike most hardcore bands, they actually did something ahead of their time,” he says. “For me, Jane Doe was a very important album. They were among the first to incorporate experimental elements into their style.
“It’s one of those things where you [have] got to listen to the album more than once to fully understand the dynamics of the record in its entirety. That’s one of the best things about this genre – there are really no rules.”
Meanwhile, Bannon, who also works as an artist, has helped to give Converge a recognisable visual aesthetic with his artwork, something he sees as important in giving his band an identity.
“In terms of experiencing music, you get engaged by the audio and sometimes you get engaged by the fully formed character. As a band, we’re fans of that,” he explains.
“The bands that we enjoyed as kids, when we started this band, had that – they had these fully formed ideas and albums that weren’t just a collection of songs with a thrown-together cover.
“There was meaning and concept behind things. Even if a band wasn’t heavily conceptual, you still understood what they were in terms of their individual character.”
And that, in essence, is what fans of intelligent heavy bands seem to be pining for: an immersive experience beyond mere music.
The Dusk in Us, by Converge, is released today
Updated: November 2, 2017 08:12 PM