Converge’s ‘No Heroes’ Turns 10
On a macro-level, there is nothing special about Converge’s No Heroes, which turns 10 this coming Monday. It wasn’t the first album with the band’s classic lineup, that would be 2004’s You Fail Me. It didn’t introduce the band to a wider audience like 2001’s Jane Doe. It wasn’t the first album that guitarist Kurt Ballou produced for the band, which was You Fail Me again. And it doesn’t even have the novelty of Axe To Fall’s guest-heavy line up. It doesn’t feature any live staples like “Eagles Become Vultures” or “Last Light.” Despite celebrating its 10 year anniversary this weekend, Converge instead decided to celebrate Jane Doe’s 15th anniversary by playing the album in full at Roadburn, and released a much ballyhooed remaster of You Fail Me. No Heroes, released right in the middle of Converge’s white-hot run of albums in the 00s remains remarkable in how overlooked it is. But this doesn’t reflect anything about the album’s quality. On the contrary, No Heroes suggests that the macro-level is a bunch of bullshit.
While it may not have any of the glitz or narrative-friendly features of the rest of Converge’s recent catalog, No Heroes is exemplary of what makes the band one of hardcore’s best. When I spoke to Jacob Bannon earlier this year he mentioned that the band’s identity came together on You Fail Me. On No Heroes Converge weren’t starting from scratch. For the first time they had established continuity with their lineup and could use that familiarity and self-awareness to take their sound to the next level. This is by no means an isolated phenomenon either, think about how Powerslave was the first record Iron Maiden made without changing members between albums, or how Blackwater Park was the second album Opeth made with the classic lineup. In each case continuity allowed for the band to capture the quintessential elements of their sound, and No Heroes was no different.
Converge sound three years tighter on No Heroes, an impressive feat for a band that were already one of the most vicious live acts around. That tightness is makes itself known on “Heartache,” a song built on hairpin changes in tempo and meter. The song shifts between a breakneck dash in the verse and an off kilter stop and start rhythm in the chorus. The band are toying with their audience, jacking them up and then pumping the brakes with no warning.
From there the first half is a single minded hurdle towards the grave. Over five tracks and nearly as many minutes, Converge show off their improved instrumental chops (the Lombardo-esque double bass finish on “Vengeance” is the first time Ben Koller had ever displayed that kind of outrageous footwork) as well as their impeccable sense of pacing. The first half of No Heroes feels like an updated take on Slayer’s Reign In Blood. The barrage of shorter songs all set an impossibly fast pace, climaxing with the album’s title track, which takes those micro-bursts of aggression and then stretches them out to a full length song while pushing the tempo even higher.
While this may seem like mindless aggression on the first listen, it’s actually an act of high-wire songwriting that puts nearly every other heavy band to shame. “With Jane Doe, You Fail Me, and No Heroes, we were writing albums, not collections of songs.” Bannon said in an interview with Verbicide in 2006, “For us there is a big difference. We want the listening experience to hold attention.” That attention to flow and structure is a huge part of the record’s appeal.
Each song is a haiku of adrenaline with every riff and drum fill establishing a momentum that then carries to the next track, where the cycle repeats again. Just as each song pivots at precisely the right moment, the album uses all of this momentum to make the agonizingly slow “Plagues” all the more effective. It’s like riding a motorcycle at top speed only to smash into a brick wall. The result is complete pulverization, and Converge use the splatter of debris as a canvas for the album’s more experimental second half.
With the listener fully at their mercy, Converge use the second act of No Heroes to apply their newfound chops to more subtle modes of expression. “Grim Heart/Black Rose,” featuring an incredible guest performance from Only Living Witness’s Jonah Jenkins, and “Trophy Scars” both highlight the band’s melodic side while showing that Converge have as much control over dynamic changes as they do rhythmic ones. On “Orphaned” and “Versus” they marry the blistering speed of the album’s first half to the language of post-hardcore. And even if it’s not as formally inventive as the tracks that surround it, the snotty and playful “Lonewolves” might be the best pure punk song that Converge have ever written.
Not only did the band’s playing and songwriting improve since You Fail Me, but Kurt Ballou also came into his own as an engineer. No Heroes contains all of the hallmarks of the Ballou-style; everything is gritty and overdriven, feedback and excess harmonics peel out through every open hole, all propelled by an enormous and biting drum sound. In the decade since No Heroes Ballou has become one of heavy music’s premier producers, nearly to the point of overexposure, but this record’s production still stands head and shoulders above the countless Orange-amp junkies that have followed it.
So why is it that No Heroes has been so thoroughly slept on in the last decade? When I asked Bannon about the album he chalked it up to bad timing. By 2006 metalcore had become big business and deathcore was just starting to rear it’s ugly head over the horizon. Converge’s gnarled approached to hardcore had little to no chance of winning over younger fans entranced by the parlor tricks of Job For A Cowboy or the melodrama of the good cop/bad cop bands on Headbangers Ball. And for critics, Converge had lost their new car smell and had to compete for space with post metal’s saturation point. It would take another half decade for the uglier side of hardcore to swing back into favor, in part because of the hard work of Bannon’s Deathwish Inc label and Ballou’s increasing prominence as a producer. Once the pendulum of taste swung back their way, Converge were ready to seize the moment, releasing Axe To Fall in 2009 and following it up with a string of singles that paved the way for All We Love We Leave Behind, a run that cemented the band’s status as one of the greatest hardcore bands of all time.
Timing aside, No Heroes was also the band’s first record that confirmed audience expectation instead of subverting it. Even the record’s formal innovation was a logical step after You Fail Me which followed a similar “breakneck first act, experimental second act divided by a crushingly heavy slow song” blueprint. But the album’s dark horse status only strengthens the band’s legacy. When we break down an artist’s body of work we tend to focus on on debuts, dramatic comebacks, or sudden changes in approach. All introductions or reintroductions, very rarely the brick and mortar of a career. No Heroes is the strongest foundation a discography could ask for.
When No Heroes was announced it was accompanied by a typically brief statement from the band. “Both in life and in art, the lack of passion is sickening, and the lust for complacency is poisonous. This album is an antithesis to that sinking world… It is for those who move mountains one day at a time” The message, combined with the album’s title is clear. Instead of worshipping false idols and cheap successes, follow your own path and do the work. Ironically, by urging their audience to burn their idols, they became heroes themselves.