Blood Moon Rising: The Story Behind Converge’s Ensemble Experiment
“Today’s my day off.”
Jacob Bannon is resting after playing with Boston hardcore legends Converge at Roadburn Festival in Tilburg the night before. After this day off, Converge are scheduled to bring Blood Moon, a performance featuring deep cuts and guest musicians, to the festival.
“We don’t have days off. Ever.”
He’s not kidding. In the four years since the band released their last full length album, All We Love We Leave Behind, the four members of Converge have been outrageously busy. Bannon co-runs Deathwish Inc., a critically acclaimed boutique hardcore label where Bannon handles graphic design duty for the label’s roster. While Bannon is occupied with the label, Converge’s guitarist Kurt Ballou has become metal and hardcore’s engineer du jour, handling the boards for albums from High On Fire, Black Breath, Harm’s Way and others.
Converge’s rhythm section, bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller, have remained equally productive. Newton is the lead singer and songwriter of Doomriders and is part of sludge metal pranksters Old Man Gloom along with Isis’s Aaron Turner, and Cave In’s Caleb Scofield. Koller is no stranger to the supergroup experience, having toured with Max Cavalera’s Killer Be Killed, while also playing with Cave In’s Steve Brodsky in Mutoid Man.
All of this extra-curricular work makes it pretty easy to understand why Converge haven’t had the time to release any new material.
“Time starts to fly by quickly. It’s tough too when you start getting older. Now we have to balance life responsibilities, business, and all our contributions to this community that are outside of the band specifically,” Bannon says. “We aren’t the kind of band that gets together and rehearses weekly, we haven’t done that in 15 years. We get together when we have a goal in mind.”
For the last six months that goal has been Blood Moon. While the band’s performance of their breakthrough album Jane Doe at Roadburn might have made more headlines Blood Moon was by far the bigger challenge. The bulk of Jane Doe has been part of Converge’s setlists for years. Songs like “Concubine” and “The Broken Vow” have been staples since their release, the latter scoring one of the band’s most infamous performances. Bannon and co. are used to playing most of that material, but that’s not true of Blood Moon.
While the band is well known for playing a hyper-fast, technical blend of metal and hardcore punk, they’ve always found space on each of their records to push their boundaries into less extreme territory. Over the years they’ve included acoustic ballads featuring xylophones, fist pumping hard rock anthems with multilayered vocal harmonies and lengthy tracks that edge closer to industrial music or post rock. Part of the band’s enduring appeal is in seeing what kind of curve balls they’ll throw at listeners accustomed to 99 mph fastballs.
For years the band had mulled over the idea of incorporating some of these odds and ends into their live sets, but their airtight four-man lineup made performing tracks with multiple layers of synthesizers and guest vocals impractical. It wasn’t until Roadburn approached them that the concept went from hypothetical to possible.
From there the band went about recruiting additional musicians. Brodsky was an obvious first choice. Not only does Brodsky play with Ben Koller in Mutoid Man, but he was also part of the official Converge lineup prior to the band’s Jane Doe breakthrough. The presence of a second guitarist is certainly a plus, but Brodsky’s real strength is what he brought to the band vocally. Bannon, Newton and Ballou all sing in Converge, if you count bellowing, screaming and horse yelling as singing. While this aggressive and raw approach works for 90% of Converge’s discography, Brodsky’s smooth, clean vocals would cover the remaining 10%.
To pull off the band’s more demanding material, they needed more than a second guitar and another voice.
“In the recording setting we have limitless tracks. There are songs like ‘Wretched World’ from Axe To Fall that have multiple guitars, multiple vocalists, multiple keyboard parts, piano parts, lots of synth. So trying to figure out ways to do that in a live setting is very challenging. And there are songs that need three guitarists when there’s only one on stage.”
To help fill that space, Converge reached out to Ben Chisholm, a multi-instrumentalist and producer most well known for his work with Chelsea Wolfe. Converge had been aware of Chisholm long before Blood Moon: Bannon released a 7-inch split between his solo project, Wear Your Wounds, and Chisholm’s Revelator in 2012.
“When we were on our last US tour and we stopped in Boston, Ben and I met up with Kurt, checked out God City Studio and got along really well,” says Chelsea Wolfe. “A couple months later Kurt reached out to Ben and asked him to be a part of this project, to be what he calls ‘the brain’ doing backing vocals, keys, and adding all the little undertones and layers to the set.”
By all accounts, Chisholm is the glue of Blood Moon.
“He’s playing live piano, keys, doing all of these synth sounds, subbass, samples, orchestral stuff that we couldn’t get a whole band for. He broke all of that down, rewrote a lot of parts, even ran xylophone parts that we had wrote that were buried in some songs,” says Bannon.
Chisholm also brought Chelsea Wolfe into the fold.
“I’ve listened to Converge before, but I wasn’t familiar with all of the songs that they were doing,” says Wolfe. “I love their music more than I realized. It’s really heavy metal, and hardcore, but it’s also got this really melodic, beautiful element to it, a lot of really beautiful layers. And I love the lyrics. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know the music more and getting to know them more.”
Although a typical Converge song shares very little with a typical Chelsea Wolfe song, the two overlap at each other’s borders. Wolfe’s last album Abyss recruited Mike Sullivan of Russian Circles to add a sludgy metallic edge to her folksy songwriting. Conversely, the softest Converge songs often slip into the realm of gothic murder ballads that aren’t a far cry from Wolfe’s Apokalypsis. The two artists met in the middle for Blood Moon, where Wolfe played guitar and sang as part of the ensemble, a significant change from Wolfe’s role as the focal point in her main band.
“At first I was treading lightly, I didn’t want to overstep or do too much. At the same time I wanted to bring my own ideas and my own element to it. They were really open to it being a collaboration, obviously it’s their songs but they’ve been allowing me to sing how I want to sing it.”
With the full team assembled, Converge holed up at God City Studios in Salem, Masachusetts, for three days before flying off to Europe to begin the Blood Moon tour.
Other than the crescent moon floating ominously across the the stage’s backdrop, the start of Blood Moon gave little indication of what was to come. Ballou and Brodsky emerged first and synced up for the motorcycle-engine grind of “Plagues.” From there the five piece version of Converge launched into “In Her Blood,” a deep cut from You Fail Me that sprawled out beyond the band’s usual brevity.
As the performance went on, more members gradually filtered onto the stage in a way that brings to mind the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense
On “Grim Heart/Black Rose” Brodsky filled in for Jonah Jenkins of Only Living Witness, who sung on the original recording, and he traded lines with Bannon during a moody and dreamlike cover of The Cure’s “Disintegration.” If you had caught Converge at This Is Hardcore in 2014 little of this would have been a surprise. Brodsky felt like a natural addition, but his presence was purely supplemental, not transformative.
When Chisholm entered the stage for “Coral Blue,” the change in energy was immediately palpable. Converge have always been a loud band in the way that punk music is loud. Screeching feedback, overdriven bass, drums played at blinding speeds. Chisholm made Converge loud in the way stadium acts are loud, all consuming and transcendent in their sheer volume. The climax of “Wretched World” dropped like an airplane plummeting out of the skies, Ballou and Brodsky harmonizing over a gut punch of subbass. As more and more musicians began to take the stage, the show blurred from a traditional rock concert into something else. Converge as an entity moved out of the spotlight and a group of musicians dedicated to bringing a specific group of songs to life took their place.
The team-first mentality carried over to the entire Blood Moon cast. Bannon readily stepped back from the mic during the middle of the set in order to play bass and guitar, and Newton switched from bass to acoustic guitar when the arrangements called for it. At no point in the performance did Wolfe’s presence on stage feel extraneous or gimmicky, and even when she took the lead on “Wretched World,” a perfect fit for her mournful voice, the band never deferred to her rising star power.
Steve Von Till’s cameo, performing a duet with Wolfe on “Cruel Bloom,” was another story.
“It’s funny, [Steve] said that he was more nervous for this than anything he’s done in a while because it’s not his music or Neurosis and so out of his comfort zone,” Bannon chuckled.
If Von Till had any jitters, it was hard to tell from the crowd. Cloaked in a thick leather jacket and retro Motörhead shirt, Von Till carried himself with the gravity of a bonafide rock star. After Von Till brought the house down, Newton and Bannon went in for hugs while Koller covered his mouth in an expression of star-struck fandom. It was the one moment where Converge seemed to be aware of the gravity of the moment.
To close out the set Converge played a pair of songs from You Fail Me. The first, “In Her Shadow,” is a classic “woman in trouble” ballad that Wolfe took complete possession of. The second was “Last Light,” slowed to a crawl that highlighted the song’s heart wrenching chord progression. In the tour leading up to Roadburn Converge had been closing with “Jane Doe.” Their decision to leave it off at Roadburn might have been a matter of avoiding redundancy, since they played the song two days earlier as part of their Jane Doe performance. But it resulted in a poignant contrast between the two sets.
Converge’s Jane Doe set was, though powerful, ultimately an act of replication. During a Q&A after the set, Newton and Ballou were uneasy with the “full album live” format, expressing a disinterest in reliving the past. “We’re not a sentimental band,” said Ballou. Bannon had similar thought regarding Jane Doe.
“People have strong feelings about that record, and I don’t want to discredit that, but to me, You Fail Me is where we really became the band we are now.” (As it turns out, the band is finally reissuing You Fail Me – of course it’s already nearly sold out).
Blood Moon is the newest step for the band that Converge became on You Fail Me. Unlike revisiting Jane Doe it finds the band breaking new ground, confounding expectations, and staying true to their creative spirit. At the end of “Last Light,” Bannon and Wolfe chant a single line; “This is for the heart still beating.” 25 years into their career, Converge’s heart still beats.
Full Stream (minus “Cruel Bloom”) c/o Pit Full of Shit
Blood Moon Set List
In Her Blood
Grim Heart/Black Rose
In Her Shadow
Chelsea Wolfe is on tour. Current dates:
5/04 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle
5/06 Asbury Park, NJ – The Stone Pony
5/08 Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall of Williamsburg
5/09 New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom
5/10 Boston, MA – The Royale
5/11 Providence, RI – Fete Music Hall
5/12 Hamden, CT – The Space
5/13 Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts
5/14 Pittsburgh, PA – Mr. Small’s Theatre
5/16 Montreal, QB – Theatre Fairmount
5/17 Toronto, ON – The Opera House
5/19 Detroit, MI – El Club
5/20 Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
5/21 Columbus, OH – Ace of Cups
5/22 Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock Social Club
5/24 Omaha, NE – Slowdown
5/25 Denver, CO – Gothic Theatre
5/26 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge
5/28 Portland, OR – Revolution Hall
5/29 Vancouver, BC – Imperial
5/30 George, WA – Sasquatch Festival
6/1 San Francisco, CA – The Chapel
6/2 San Francisco, CA – The Chapel
6/7 Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom
6/8 Los Angeles, CA – Teragram Ballroom