Telepathy, Sobriety, Warfare: How Converge and Chelsea Wolfe Eclipsed Expectations With Bloodmoon | Revolver

Telepathy, Sobriety, Warfare: How Converge and Chelsea Wolfe Eclipsed Expectations With Bloodmoon

Inside the hardcore trailblazers' radically expanded new lineup and vision
convergebloodmoon_featured_credit_emilybirds.jpg, Emily Birds
photograph by Emily Birds

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What's the best way to collaborate when your band members are quarantined amid a pandemic on opposite sides of the United States? The internet is a powerful distance-erasing tool, but when one of said collaborators is an elemental gothic force like Chelsea Wolfe, you're just as likely to find a meaningful connection through more metaphysical conduits.

"I asked if we could do a telepathic meeting, where we all stopped and closed our eyes at the same moment — no matter where we were doing — and channeled our energies into the center of this project. We ended up calling it a 'telepathic Zoom call,' which I think is really funny," Wolfe tells Revolver. The project in question? Bloodmoon: I, her highly anticipated joint album with hardcore trailblazers Converge, multi-instrumentalist Ben Chisholm and Cave In frontman Stephen Brodsky. "Each of us had a different experience. [Converge drummer] Ben Koller envisioned us onstage playing the songs. Steve Brodsky was walking around New York listening to the songs and stopped to appreciate the work we had all put in. I meditated and envisioned us sitting in a circle. ... It was just a sweet sort of mental meeting, of sorts."

"She's somebody who is very aware of things in the world that aren't just black and white," Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon adds of the "spiritual, soulful" Wolfe. "That sort of lightness in approach is some-thing very different than what [Converge] are used to. We're not adverse to those things, but we're also not really exposed to that because we live in our punk bubble [where] we reject everything that's not flesh and bone, or in front of us."

Whether philosophically, musically or by virtue of the ballooned lineup, Bloodmoon: I makes for a unique and ultimately game-changing album for hardcore magnates Converge. Fittingly due out November 19th, the day of a partial lunar eclipse, the album naturally fixates at times on the ground-rattling metallic hardcore fracas that the band has honed to perfection since the early Nineties, but it likewise blushes with Spaghetti Western goth ("Scorpion's Sting"), choral, melancholic prog ("Coil") and fanciful Sabbathian sludge (the Brodsky-sung "Flower Moon"). The synergy between the core Converge members — Bannon, Koller, guitarist Kurt Ballou and bassist Nate Newton — and their collaborators is seamless, a beast-mode upgrade on an already revered output. Simply put, while Converge's broader discography has always hinted at more than just hardcore, the expanded parameters of Bloodmoon: I have created the most outwardly extravagant manifestation of the band's anything-goes approach.

"We're a dynamic band and have a variety of things within our sound, but primarily we're known for sounding like a chainsaw with some pterodactyls in the background," Bannon says jokingly of a wildly narrow view of Converge's evolving oeuvre. But to Bannon's point, it's also fair to say that the frontman possesses one of the most inhumanly harrowing howls in the game. Wolfe has an equally primeval impression of Bannon, likening his vocal presence to "a decaying skull screaming into the void," a perfectly metal-as-hell description of her now co-vocalist. But maintaining that go-for-the-throat forcefulness over multiple decades, as Bannon himself will admit, hasn't come without its physical sacrifices.

"I've done so much damage to myself over the last 30 years of yelling that, hey, I've got what I got," he says. "There are only a handful of notes that I feel comfortable singing or actually have any sort of control over, because there's so much scar tissue [in my throat]. It's just a mess. I don't have that [vocal range]. That's not the muscle I've sharpened and conditioned over time. I have something else entirely, [but] I'm comfortable with that."

Bannon's performance across Bloodmoon: I suggests he's underselling his chops a touch, but still, there's strength in knowing your limitations. As such, the vocalist was grateful to have collaborators Wolfe and Brodsky materializing the choice melodies he might not have otherwise been able to reach on his own. As he puts it: "In my head, I'm usually writing vocal melodies for Ronnie James Dio, but I can't sing like him. I don't know Ronnie James Dio — and he's dead — so let's see how Steve sings it."

convergebloodmoon_1_credit_emilybirds.jpg, Emily Birds with designer by Ashley Rose; makeup by Steffanie Strazzere and hair by Francesca Colvario
(from left) Stephen Brodsky, Ben Koller, Jacob Bannon, Nate Newton, Ben Chisholm, Chelsea Wolfe and Kurt Ballou
photograph by Emily Birds with designer by Ashley Rose; makeup by Steffanie Strazzere and hair by Francesca Colvario

The Bloodmoon project began its ascent in earnest back in 2016. At the time, Converge reached out to Wolfe, Chisholm and Brodsky to flesh out some of the moodier, lesser known pieces of the hardcore outfit's catalog for a short European tour, which culminated in a now-legendary set at the Netherlands' Roadburn Festival.

Bringing Brodsky into the fold was a natural move as he was already part of the extended family. He previously played bass on Converge's 1998 full-length, When Forever Comes Crashing, while on 2009's Axe to Fall, the members of Cave In and Converge melded into a large-form wrecking crew for a pair of tracks. Plus, Brodsky plays with Converge members in two other bands: the shredding Mutoid Man, with Koller, and Cave In, with Newton, who joined in 2018 following the death of the group's longtime bassist Caleb Scofield.

Chisholm had likewise been in Converge's sphere for a few years, having released, under the name Revelator, a split 7-inch with Bannon's post-rock project Wear Your Wounds. Chisholm has also performed on and produced albums with Wolfe over the past decade, and was the one who introduced her to Converge's music. Furthermore, with both Wolfe and Mutoid Man signed to Sargent House Records, Wolfe had run into Brodsky several times over the years at parties and festivals, even bonding with him one time while wandering the streets of Prague. "We sort of snuck into the biggest arena that they have there, which the Beatles had played once," she recalls. "We were out in the middle of this arena, and I think I asked Steve to sing a Metallica song or something. It sounded awesome out there."

Likewise, the onstage energy at those initial Bloodmoon shows was palpable enough that, once the shows wrapped successfully, the seven musicians collectively agreed to record an album of originals. Various demos and song ideas were passed between themselves over the years, but when they finally found time to — ahem — converge upon Ballou's GodCity recording studio in Salem, Massachusetts, in early 2020, the pandemic hit. While the East Coast players had a chance to get together, Wolfe tracked the majority of her contributions from her home studio in Northern California.

Though Wolfe has worked with a wide spectrum of rock, doom and folk textures on her solo albums, linking up with Converge initially in 2016 was an opportunity to creatively contemplate someone else's craft. "I had toured a good amount by that point, but it had always been with my own band, with me at the helm and making a lot of the decisions," she explains. "This was a chance to step back and be part of the band, to learn some parts someone else had written. I think it helped me to grow as a musician [but] I was shyer back then … I was really just trying to fade into the background and let Converge shine."

Wolfe continues: "That's been a long, slow sort of journey for me, from wearing a literal Victorian mourning veil onstage when I first started, because I didn't want people to see [my face], to now [where] I'm OK with being myself up there."

Wolfe's home studio had already been set up pre-pandemic to track her 2019 LP, Birth of Violence, so she was fully in her element while laying down vocals and guitar at home. An unforeseen personal transition arose through the sessions, though. With the infrastructure in place, and new songs to sing, Wolfe utilized the Bloodmoon songs as a beacon to navigate the "mental and spiritual adjustment" of beginning a path to sobriety.

"It's a bit of a struggle when you first get sober, obviously," Wolfe reflects. "This project was a really beautiful outlet for me during that time, this mindset I was gaining without the fogginess of alcohol. It was a perfect time for me to channel that into something. These songs were ready to be sung on, so it got me into this really great groove of getting up and working on these songs for hours, getting lost in them but feeling really clear."

For the longtime members of Converge, the journey to Bloodmoon: I spans multiple decades. Ballou and Bannon first formed the band as teenagers, and early on they brought an esoteric, though Slayer-loving, twist to the often-rigid attack of the early Nineties metalcore scene they worked within. By the early Aughts, pickup-corroding noise, obliterating blasts and an oddly subversive hookiness were packed into the chaotic pieces of their era-defining Jane Doe — notably the first Converge album to feature Newton and powerhouse drummer Koller. On a visual front, Bannon's texturized, high-contrast cover image of a woman's stoic face — the veritable Jane Doe, recently confirmed to be partially based on a photo of French model Audrey Marnay — is right up there in the pantheon of punk and metal logos alongside the Misfits' Crimson Ghost. Each Converge album since the early '00s has been an event, and at least in that sense, Bloodmoon: I is no different.

Of the numerous shake-ups to the Converge formula on Bloodmoon: I, the most obvious is the expanded lineup. For Bannon, the broader group experience meant ceding control over album themes, forgoing his long-employed "solitary pursuit" of lyric-writing in favor of a writing-by-committee approach. "Converge 'proper,' let's just say, is very much a place where I open up and pour out all of the things that are in my head. ... This is a different presentation," he says. "There are songs that we worked on where I didn't think I was going to have a vocal at all, and then it ends up taking a whole new form because of a Chelsea suggestion, or a Ben C. suggestion, or a Brodsky suggestion."

bloodmoon_chelsea_credit_emilybirds.jpg, Emily Birds
photograph by Emily Birds

As such, Bloodmoon: I can be a gorgeous, kaleidoscopic experience. At any given moment, Bannon's screech bleeds into the brooding, melancholic vibrato of Wolfe, which can itself coil around the raw, Metal Yell yowling of Brodsky. While Wolfe had experimented with extreme vocals in the past (see her shrieked "Primal/Carnal" a capella off 2011's Apokalypsis), Bloodmoon: I's title cut was a chance to get even grislier with her vocal tone, which she'd coincidentally already begun taking into monstrous new directions.

"I've been working on a horror film score over the past year, and a lot of that [has been] making some very demonic sounds," she explains. "I was working on that at the same time as the Bloodmoon songs, so there was a bit of crossover. On the song 'Blood Moon,' I pushed myself towards a growling of sorts — some-thing new, vocally — and that inspired Jake to take on some of those parts and expand upon them. That was cool to hear, the interplay of our two guttural screams."

Even outside of the three key vocalists on the album, Newton often steps up with his own oak-toppling scream throughout the LP. Meanwhile, Ballou — whom both Wolfe and Bannon credit for shepherding the full Bloodmoon squad towards its immersive heft — had penned the lyrics for the especially ripping "Viscera of Men." The piece encapsulates the "scatter and splatter" of eons of human conflict; Wolfe supplements the tune with her own cryptic thoughts on violence ("Sometimes there is no understanding for war," she muses of the "big battle scenes" of Ballou's lyrics).

Structurally, the tune barrels into the kind of weaponized, American d-beat Converge has needled into over the decades, but the piece soon upends into a frightening, imperial gloom bolstered by Chisholm's unnerving fanfare of synth brass. And yet, the varied paths never feel decidedly un-Converge-like to Bannon.

"Some of my favorite records, as a listener, are Zeppelin records, like Houses of the Holy. There's so much variety, but it's still so much like Zeppelin," Bannon says. "I'd never compare my band to the catalogs of the Melvins, or Led Zeppelin, or Metallica. Far from it — I know our lane and I'm totally fine with that — but the fact that this record has all these interesting sonic voices within it is really cool to me."

As a visual artist, that expanded scope likewise fits into Bannon's graphic design for the project. A Converge-styled visage marks the artwork in shades of crimson and cobalt, but it's notable that this play on the band's most iconic image comes with only one half of the figure's face on the front cover — a visual shorthand for how the classic Converge lineup are only part of Bloodmoon: I's bigger picture. Front and center, though, a beaming, unified Yin Yang symbol hangs moon-like. Bannon is hesitant to put too much thought into his band's legacy ("I'm concerned with forward movement"), but concedes that lunar imagery has threaded itself throughout Converge's discography, from 2004's You Fail Me concluding with the punishing "Hanging Moon" up to the artwork for 2012's All We Love We Leave Behind tracing the phases of a moon cycle.

"Some people would call them tropes, but they're things which I relate to, visually and metaphorically," Bannon explains. "Every human being relates to their own sort of darkness in different ways. The moon can be that symbol for some. For other people, it's a symbol of a light that is shining in an otherwise pitch black time. You can take that metaphor however you want it."

converge_jake_credit_emilybirds.jpg, Emily Birds
photograph by Emily Birds

While Converge's glorious Bloodmoon has just risen, Wolfe somewhat likens the arrival of this lunar event to the end of a grueling battle. This makes sense on several levels — whether overcoming the logistics of recording through a brutal pandemic, to her path to sobriety, to just laying down this long-planned set of songs some five years after first teaming up for the initial Bloodmoon shows.

"There's a lot of red energy on this album," she says. "The song 'Blood Dawn,' to me, is sort of the end of this journey — these battles going on from the blood moon into the sunrise, you're looking at the blood that's left on your hands. [I'm] imagining all of us sitting on the beach after a battle as the sun rises — we're exhausted, but happy that the battle is done."

While mostly recorded apart, the musicians did all manage to get together at GodCity this past June for final mixes and a few last-minute punch-ins — the first time they'd all been in the same room since before the start of the pandemic. There's even more Bloodmoon on the horizon, with both Bannon and Wolfe confirming festival dates are in the works for 2022. The album title likewise hints that there could eventually be a Bloodmoon: II one day. But wherever Bannon and his bandmates are headed from here, the vocalist is always excited for Converge's next phase.

"Many other bands have done elaborate versions of their band and then gone back to their core for the next record," Bannon concludes. "I like that idea of flexibility within a creative character, especially something that we built as teenagers. 'Hey, we're going to try to do something totally weird that we've never done before ... and then we're going to make another record!"