I can still remember the first time I walked into a record store and saw that face. My eye went right to it. The cover for Converge’s Jane Doe, an album that turns 20 tomorrow, had a stark, heavy, ominous simplicity to it. Converge singer Jacob Bannon, who designed the cover, has said that the Jane Doe of Jane Doe isn’t any one particular person, that he assembled the image through layers of acrylics and spray paint and ink and photography. But she felt like a person. It’s hard to say what was so immediately striking about that album cover, but that image has stayed with us in the two decades since Jane Doe came out. That face became a new-equivalent version of the Black Flag bars — a visual signifier for a whole subcultural world. Today, that face appears on running shorts and facemasks and coffee mugs and tote bags, and it still feels haunting and mysterious.
The first time I saw that face, I don’t think I knew Converge as anything other than a name on a flyer. But the record store in question, the Sound Garden in Syracuse, had listening stations, so I took threw that CD on immediately. The music on that CD promptly peeled my scalp from my skull. The first song on Jane Doe is called “Concubine,” and it’s a frantic, fearsome 79-second hell-spasm that screeches and judders and shudders. Bannon howls incomprehensible open-wound agonies over what sounds like a mathematically precise weed whacker to the face. I’d heard music like this before, but I’d never heard music like this, if that makes any sense at all.
Converge did not invent metalcore. Nobody really did. Hardcore and metal had already been feasting on each other’s flesh for years. The biggest hardcore bands of the ’90s were the Victory Records screamers — Earth Crisis, Integrity, Snapcase — who were sonically a whole lot closer to metal than to any known variety of punk. By the time Converge made Jane Doe, bands like Hatebreed and Zao were already cranking out towering, concussive riff-stomps; Cave In, Converge’s Boston buddies, had already moved on from that sound and into the spaced-out arena-rock theatrics of Jupiter. At the same time, bands like Botch and Coalesce and the Dillinger Escape Plan had gone positively insane with time-signature shifts and frantically off-kilter riffage, making jagged music that was never content to settle into a groove. Jane Doe existed within the context of all of that, but it stood out, too.
When Jane Doe came out, Converge had been playing shows for a solid decade, and they’d been through the sort of chaotic evolution that all long-lasting hardcore bands seem to have. Converge had released two full-lengths and a lot of one-offs. They’d had tons of membership shifts, and Jane Doe was the first album that they recorded with bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller. (For a while, Newton was commuting up from Virginia Beach, where he still played with his band Jesuit, for Converge practices.) When the Jane Doe sessions were just about done, Converge also kicked out guitarist Aaron Dalbec, telling him that he’d be better off focusing on Bane, his other band. (In this huge Decibel piece on Jane Doe, Dalbec still seems pretty pissed about it.)
Once Dalbec was out, Converge had a steady four-piece lineup, and the band has had that same lineup ever since. The members of Converge all maintain a whole mess of side projects, but they still come back together every few years and release another album that’s way better than anyone expects. So maybe that’s part of what makes Jane Doe stand out. Maybe we’re hearing an absurdly good band discovering itself, hardening into the force that it would become. But that’s not quite it, either. There are bigger things at play.
Part of it is just how huge the thing sounds. These days, Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou is one of the greatest, most trusted producers on the entire heavy-music landscape. Ballou, who had already produced Cave-In’s towering Until Your Heart Stops, co-produced Jane Doe with engineer Matt Ellard. He recorded some of it at his God City Studio, which has since become Converge’s home base. Ballou knows how to make heavy music sound vast and impactful without losing its raw, desperate edge, and you can hear that gift at work on Jane Doe.
But Converge also recorded a lot of Jane Doe at Q Division in Somerville, Massachusetts — the same place where the Pixies made Surfer Rosa. While Converge were working at Q Studios, James Taylor, who was willing to pay more, kicked them out of the bigger of the two recording rooms. (Nate Newton, to Decibel: “James Taylor was across the hall from us, and he kept sending his engineer over to tell us to be quiet. ‘Mr. Taylor is trying to record vocal tracks, and you guys are goofing off and being way too loud over here.'”) Converge’s previous album, 1998’s When Forever Comes Crashing, still rules, but it doesn’t have the same sense of dynamics and scale that you can hear at work on Jane Doe.
Jane Doe also sounds feverishly urgent. At the time, many other hardcore bands wrote about politics or societal ills, but Converge wrote about personal apocalypse. Jacob Bannon has said that he wrote his lyrics about a relationship disintegrating, and the rest of the band gave him the room to say what he needed to say. Bannon’s screams don’t always match up with the lost-soul poetry in the Jane Doe lyric sheet, and in the rare occasions that you can make out what he’s saying, it’s fairly self-explanatory: “No love! No hope!” But Bannon brings tremendous presence to his strangulated yelps, and he always sounds like he’s having skin peeled from his bones. He makes depression and alienation sound immediate and physical. The lyrics on Jane Doe are too oblique for specifics, and they probably influenced a ton of dumber dude-bands who treated the women in their lives as if they were demons to be exorcised. But I never get that ookiness from Jane Doe, even though song titles like “Concubine” and “Homewrecker” don’t exactly look great in retrospect. Jane Doe just sounds like someone who’s going through it.
Jane Doe is also a whole lot more layered and ambitious than virtually any other hardcore album, before or since. The songs don’t fit established formats or rules. Sometimes, they’re brief, serrated tantrums. Sometimes, they stretch out; Jane Doe‘s closing track is an overwhelming epic that stretches nearly 12 minutes. It’s pretty clear that Converge weren’t hung up on the differences between metal and hardcore when they made Jane Doe, and that’s probably why the album has become a revered text in both of those interlocking worlds. Maybe Jane Doe is one of the reasons that those worlds currently interlock as much as they do.
Jane Doe had a lot of kids. The design alone has decades of imitators; Jacob Bannon’s distressed-font aesthetic ultimately and unfortunately ended up as a T-shirt affectation for MMA bros. Tons of bands tried to replicate the technical, majestic fury of Jane Doe, and none of them ever got there. Converge themselves moved on, expanding their sound enough to allow for blastbeat blurts and meditative doom epics. I’m not even fully convinced that Jane Doe is their best album. (Axe To Fall is a motherfucker.) But Jane Doe was a moment, a point where planets aligned and ideas clicked. Two decades later, long after its imitators have faded into the realm of half-embarrassed nostalgia, Jane Doe stands as a freakout of cosmic proportions.