In 2001, heavy music was reaching commercial heights the likes of which it hadn’t seen since the 1980s Sunset Strip era. Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit were selling out stadiums worldwide with their radio friendly take on the nu metal sound, while Slipknot’s sophomore album ‘Iowa’ would reach the top of the UK Albums Chart. Critically, however, this latest trend in heavy music left a lot to be desired. Metalheads, hardcore kids and punks alike were less than impressed with this new influx of turntables, sportswear, frosted tips and Yankee caps. How fortuitous then that the historical, residential coastal city of Salem, Massachusetts would provide a truly ground-breaking, hard alternative. Enter Converge. Enter ‘Jane Doe’.
At this point in time, Converge were already veterans of the nearby, proliferating Boston hardcore punk scene but stood out as a bit of an oddity. They had released three solid albums of ridiculously heavy, metal-infused hardcore which put them on the underground map but didn’t yield much by way of commercial success, mainstream appeal or even popularity. Their sound was unappealing – too metal for the hardcore kids, too punky for the metalheads. This was no cause for concern for the band, their outwardly defiant and emotive performance on stage and record alike was their sole intent and purpose.
It was a transformative time for the band. Founded by frontman Jacob Bannon and guitarist Kurt Ballou in 1990 while still in high school; the band had recruited bassist Nate Newton prior to the recording of their 1999 split LP with Agoraphobic Nosebleed, ‘The Poacher Diaries’. This new rhythm section would be completed by the fresh out of high school drummer Ben Koller, while long-time guitarist Aaron Dalbec would leave the group during ‘Jane Doe’s creation process to focus on his side-project Bane full-time.
With the band’s line-up now solidified, the band would enter the studio with Matthew Ellard handling production duties in tandem with Ballou. Afforded a higher budget by their record label, Equal Vision Records, the band decided to take a different approach to the recording process – bouncing between three studios to record and mix the album, assembling it piecemeal. ‘Jane Doe’ came to represent a watershed in the band’s artistic calling.
In the years since its release, the band would see its influence reach far beyond the popularity of their music. Ballou has become a much sought after producer, working with groups like Torche, Nails, Code Orange and goth queen Chelsea Wolfe, eventually stepping into the role of prime producer for Converge. Meanwhile, Bannon would co-found Deathwish Inc., a record label specialising in heavy underground sounds. The band have managed to stay relevant amongst metalheads, hardcore veterans and young punks alike, continuing to push boundaries and drop instant classics, staying the course while fads and trends in heavy music have come and gone. It all began with ‘Jane Doe’.
What makes the album so good is its extreme sound, powerful and dynamic performance and incendiary vocal performance. It’s ear-splitting stuff, but there’s nuance too. Centred in metallic hardcore, it breaks from the genres tropes in many ways. Distance and Meaning, for example, is a piercing, explosive take on post-hardcore while Thaw features the warped, intricate riffage and drumming that math rock bands could only long for. There’s dark alternative rock on Hell to Pay, and recurring four-chord wizardry and pummelling drum fills on Homewrecker.
Despite the diverse sounds, ‘Jane Doe’ manages to seem more cohesive than it actually is. This can be attributed both to its deafening volume and its presentation and flow. Kicking off with the tight drums, disorienting licks, overwhelming screams and driving bass of Concubine, the album has enough thrills and chills to keep any listener engaged and exhilarated. Seguing smoothly into the off-kilter Fault and Fracture – the highlight of which is the hellish ascending melody that speeds to a frenzied crescendo – you get a sense of the band’s knack for organised chaos but also their sense of dynamics. Distance and Meaning offers a welcome change in tone with its raw sound and vocal delivery that switches from sneering to snarling. Hell to Pay is mellow and brooding by comparison while Bitter and Then Some features lead vocals that sound like they’re coming from underwater, showing the band’s willingness to find new ways to bring the noise.
‘Jane Doe’ makes just about any record you once considered extreme seem innocent and tame by comparison but many precautions are taken to ensure the album is more than pure harsh noise (it stands to reason that this is their most abrasive album and that album’s in its wake have incorporated much more melody and dynamics). The album’s latter half is where these tasteful changes come into place, whether on the dense, glacial paced Phoenix in Flight or the frenzied, angular, freakish Thaw. Perhaps the bravest artistic choice was ending on an 11-minute epic on the album’s title track. Initially slow and caustic, the track moves through numerous phases – at times, some of the most melodic on the whole album – tying the album up rather nicely.
Beyond the sonic endeavours that make this album so great are the loose concept and lyrical content. Simply put, ‘Jane Doe’ is a break-up record which for a heavy album is novel, to say the least. Once you acknowledge this, it all becomes clear – the bleeding heart lyrics, the album artwork that spawned a million t-shirts and eventually became a symbol for the band, the title. Jane Doe, the unknown woman, the international woman of mystery. It could be any woman. Her name does not matter.
Moreover, there is a certain genius to the album’s lyricism. While on paper, they obviously make beautiful poetry, it’s their delivery on ‘Jane Doe’ that matters most. For starters, they’re unintelligible. Bannon’s now trademark squawk bastardise his written word. If you listen closely enough, you’ll find that often what he’s screaming about doesn’t even match what’s on the lyric sheet. On Concubine, for example, the haunting, elegant verse “For I felt the greatest of winters coming/ And I saw you as seasons shifting from blue to grey/ That's where the coldest of these days await me/And distance lays her heavy head beside me/ There I'll stay gold, forever gold” is reduced to one line: “You stay gold/ I’ll stay gold”. Over and over again. But where words are not, feeling remains. This is a deliberate sonic element. Bannon’s vocals are rhythmic and tonal. They allow you to come to grips with the material on an emotional level. Rather than being pushed to the front of each and every song on the album, the anguished delivery, aimless rage and constant self-scrutiny of Bannon’s words are evident from his agonising delivery as if he himself is struggling to find the words to express his pain. It’s a masterful technique.
‘Jane Doe’ would be the band’s last album on Equal Vision Records. Unimpressed, or perhaps confused by its abrasive, esoteric sound, they would drop the band who would find a new home at the more recognisable Epitaph Records before founding their own imprint in Deathwish. It would prove to be a costly mistake. ‘Jane Doe’, despite not charting, was the band’s commercial breakthrough and a critical success. As for the band, they have become one of the most dearly loved, remarkable cult bands the world over. ‘Jane Doe’ was merely the album that ripped up the punk and metal bibles and started them all over.