After a hard-fought career that's approaching two decades, Converge may well be the kings of hardcore. One of the genre's biggest bands records for big indie Epitaph, whose umbrella stretches from Tom Waits to Bad Religion. And lacerating songs like "Plagues" and the new "Damages" make a case for Converge as the most artistically evolved. So when the band's latest album, Axe to Fall, galloped out of the gate with the full-on metal attack "Dark Horse," it was a surprise — but not a disappointing one.
Headbanger journal Decibel gave Axe a rare perfect 10 rating, and the raves are piling up. Granted, no one's going to mistake the Massachusetts band for Metallica: Frontman Jake Bannon's preferred delivery mode is a histrionic, tortured scream. The group rips apart traditional song structures and shreds in the tatters (guitarist Kurt Ballou often sounds like he's manning a disaster-alert siren). But from its first few seconds, Axe is a rampage of intricate drumming and six-string heroics. Ballou says the band hasn't gone metal. But after a string of three landmark hardcore records, it had to go somewhere.
"I don't think of it as a straight metal record," says Ballou. "There [was] a conscious effort — not for us to be more metal, but to not repeat ourselves. I look at Jane Doe , You Fail Me  and No Heroes  as a trilogy of sorts. And we've pretty much done as much as we can within the confines of that sort of sound. So there was an effort to push some of our own boundaries."
Since forming in 1990, Converge have incorporated metal elements into their music. Ballou recalls spending his teen years reading skater mag Thrasher by day and watching MTV's Headbanger's Ball at night. The guitarist — often credited as the driving musical force in the group — initially wanted to take Axe in a different direction. But drummer Ben Koller has been on a prog kick since the last record.
"I wanted to make this record more of a dumb, stripped-down hardcore record," says Ballou. "But I could tell the tastes of the other guys are moving away from that. The guitar on this record was meant to complement [Koller's] taste. [But] I'm not going to make a record that sounds like Yes or Kansas."
Despite the slight prog influences, some of Axe's biggest statements, like on the group's previous albums, are simple moments. Ballou refers to one of the group's signature styles — dark, brooding pieces like the new record's sensual seven-minute album closer "Wretched World" or the echoing guitar meditations like "In Her Shadow" from You Fail Me — as "slow jams."
Poignant and ponderous passages are rare on either side of extreme music, but Ballou says they're important. "Most of our records are in the 40-to-50-minute range," he says. "I personally can't listen to metallic hardcore for 40 or 50 minutes in a row. I need something to take me to some other places."
The band's current tour will definitely take fans to some different places. Hard-rock champs Mastodon invited three of their favorite bands as support on one of the decade's great packages. For this week's off-date show at the Grog Shop, Cleveland gets half the bill: Converge and High on Fire. (The Bay area underground-metal titans just wrapped a new record for release next year, produced by Greg Fidelman, who has worked with Metallica and Slayer.)
Whether he deserves it or not, Ballou has a rep as Converge's metal guy. Frontman Jacob "Jake" Bannon is recognized as the band's arty, punk-rock dude. (He's also the hands-on owner of Deathwish Inc., a hardcore label with a stable of thoroughbreds, including Cleveland's Integrity and Ringworm.)
Even if you're not a fan of his vocals, you have to admit that Bannon's music always looks good. He is a noted graphic artist and has one of the most distinct styles in the underground-music continuum. He's a sophisticated lyricist too: The new "Cutter" tells a story of self-inflicted slicing that doubles as a metaphor for sickness and self-destruction.
"Prose paints a picture as well," says Bannon. "Prose complements the sonic backdrop that's there for a song. And it all collectively tells the story, along with the visuals of an album. You communicate in a broader, metaphorical way — as opposed to in a literal way. That's the way music works."
Like Axe's indelicate blend of hardcore and metal, Bannon's performance on the album is a mix of primal howls and nuanced lyrics. For the band, the music's metal flavor isn't a departure; it's just another artistic choice.
"We just enjoy writing abrasive music," says Bannon. "You kind of go through seasons as a creative person, wanting to write in a certain style. It's just where we're landing right now."