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“I came to their latest effort, All We Love We Leave Behind, with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried, as it’s their best work yet.”

I‘ve got a confession to make: until a week ago, I hadn’t listened to Converge in about a decade. Not properly, at any rate, not since Jane Doe came out. Yes, I know, I know, but can you really blame me? That 2001 record was such a landmark for hardcore that whatever they could’ve come up with next would either have ripped up the rule book, or seriously disappointed. When You Fail Me came out three years later, its release heralded by the underwhelming ‘Black Cloud‘, the latter describes my feelings. It just didn’t compare; it wasn’t anywhere close to the sheer intensity and frantic energy of Jane Doe’s breathtaking twofer, ‘Concubine‘ and ‘Fault and Fracture‘ – still the best opening salvo of any hardcore or metal record of the past 15 years.

It also didn’t help that it was the band’s first for Epitaph, which only reinforced my prejudices: they’d sold out signing for the punk equivalent of a major, I convinced myself, and they weren’t worth my attention anymore. I understand now that the mistake was mine, as revisiting that album today I find so much to recommend it as a worthy successor to a record they were always going to have trouble following. Better was 2006’s No Heroes, which ramped up the speed-freak grind elements, despite suffering slightly (as even Jane Doe did) from front-loading with the faster tracks, making the second half a bit of a drudge to get through. I can’t really say much good about 2009’s Axe to Fall, which to my ears stripped much of what was uniquely ‘Converge’ about their sound, replacing that frantic energy with more conventional or ‘accessible’ song structures that may have helped their record sales, but not their reputation in my mind. So I came to their latest effort, All We Love We Leave Behind, with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried, as it’s their best work yet.

Opener and lead single ‘Aimless Arrow‘ is marked by a much looser, open sound, abandoning the tight constricts that marred its predecessor, not to mention vocalist Jacob Bannon freeing his voice to channel Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto for a spell. Founding guitarist and long-time producer Kurt Ballou knows how to capture vibrant gritty heaviness, but usually for other bands; on AWLWLB he’s given Converge that raw treatment for the first time since Jane Doe, and it’s more than welcome. On grind-inflected tracks like ‘Trespasses‘ and ‘Sparrow’s Fall‘, Bannon tears his lungs out to Ballou’s ripping riffs, while Nate Newton’s growling bass and Ben Koller’s solid drumming are simply punch-in-the-face brutal. It gives the whole package a live impact that Converge haven’t had on record in years.

AWLWLB benefits from a better sequencing job, too, pacing the slower breakdown-laden tracks like ‘Empty On The Inside’ and ‘A Glacial Pace’ between the screaming speed runs, and encouraging a stronger flow from beginning to end. The pacing also extends to the track lengths, which never exceed five minutes, even on the lone ‘ballad’ of the bunch, ‘Coral Blue‘. It’s not so much a ballad as a dirge, and Converge have always done ’em – without regard to listeners like me, for whom it’s surely the weakest moment here.

That drive to confound expectations comes together stronger on the title track, marked by a bright, chiming central riff from Ballou (echoes of Japanese post-rock/hardcore outfit Envy here) while Bannon wails about the sacrifices he’s had to make to pursue his music and his art. In this, he and the band are reflecting a similar attitude to Old Man Gloom on their new record NO, a recognition that with age and experience comes perspective. But where OMG (who share a member with Converge in Nate Newton) come across as old dudes refusing to expire quietly, Converge aren’t approaching the end of anything, despite a focus on the passage of time – that starkly beautiful cover art following the phases of the moon – and a lyrical thread that laments the end of youth. Rather, they’re rekindling the spirit that made their breakthrough material so invigorating. It’s heartening to hear them like this.

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