Converge's 'Petitioning the Empty Sky' is so entrenched in the vocabulary of hardcore that one has trouble ever imagining a new-school metalcore style without it.As such, an objective review is just about impossible to come by: this album has been praised by most everyone who has ever come across it, it has been placed - justly so - in countless top-ten lists, and it seems a necessary cornerstone of any hardcore collection.But to take 'Petitioning' out of the flow of history, a small personal anecdote may be in order.I remember the dimly-lit basement where I heard Converge for the first time, and I remember thinking, along with my friends, "What the hell is this"
Converge came as such a visceral shock for the simple fact that it was revolutionary.Metalcore prior to that point - new school in general, I might even argue, though it had moments of brilliance and originality, had never seen a true artist.Bear in mind that in '96 and '97, when most of us started to hear of Converge, Cave In was far from a household name, and Dillinger was most respected for its Slayer covers.And then along came 'Petitioning,' and nothing was ever the same again.Unlike the much more traditional (though still marvelous) metalcore sound of 'Caring and Killing,' it broke with all conventions of rhythm, melody, dissonance, instrumentation, and vocalization.Converge introduced a new sound to the underground - one so brutally raw, dynamic, forceful, and unquestionably beautiful - that what we looked for in new bands would forever be changed.
"The Saddest Day," the first track, considered by many to be their best, opens with a cacophony of high end blaring notes like small fiery nails; after one passage, this is joined by throbbing drums and bass, and vocals so forcefully naked you might for a moment forget that anything so caustic can be music.But before your head gets adjusted to the noise, the tempo shifts to double-bassed fast breakdown mode, complete with small warbling in the bass to remind you that this isn't trite moshcore.Over the song's seven-minute run the music shifts so violently so many times, and yet somehow maintains its cohesive feel - even some motivic consistency - that no one can deny genius at work.Although there are more brilliant moments in this one song than I care to get into, no one can forget the segment of pure breakdown where the guitar and bass diverge at the end, speeding up each time it is played until it reaches insane speed; or the bizarre section where all instrumentation but non-distorted guitar and cymbals drops off, and vocals become an eerie, haunting song; or the devastating sing-along to "every time you justify another good in you dies."These are memories, from listening in our cars or dancing at shows, that most hardcore kids carry within them.
After "The Saddest Day," no single song falls short of great, and many keep the mark of brilliance."Forsaken" is a brief, focused assault, most notable for a melodic two-step which dissolves into a sick breakdown under dark chords to the words "carry on.""Albatross" introduces both emo and punk elements, with fast turnovers, melancholy melodies, and the touching ending on very major chords."Dead" has bright melody lines jumping and intertwining, morphing slowly into the inevitable breakdown, which spirals upward in dissonant high notes, to a chaotic, mind-blowing finish.The tightly warbling opening of "Shingles" anticipates the blazing tempo changes and variations on themes that mark this track."Buried But Breathing" reminds one most of Converge's earliest efforts, with dark, chugging old-school rhythm and fingerpointing sing-along.Of the entire album, "Farewell Note to the City" is both the most emotional and most intriguing song: it has a slick, almost jazzy emo style, minimal instrumentation, vocals that range from passionate screams to wailing, heartfelt singing, and as it accelerates toward the end, it will anticipate the best of bands like Shai Hulud or Stretch Armstrong.Last of the studio songs comes "Color Me Blood Red," my personal favorite and a pure delight of tight, crisp, metal melody over an unbelievable breakdown beat - think "Epicure" - and trust me, the song just goes on from there.The last tracks, recorded live, are all equally excellent, though somewhat less memorable than the main body of 'Petitioning.'
I cannot imagine a band putting more variety, more technical perfection, or more sheer artistry in one album.And while 'Petitioning' does not have the degree of experimentation seen in Cave In's masterpiece, 'Until Your Heart Stops' or even Converge's own "Jane Doe" (the only ambient-hardcore ever recorded), it still revolutionized both the way we listen to hardcore and the playing field for new bands who wanted their own unique art. 'Petitioning' is at times violent, at others tranquil; it is at times blistering, at others beautiful; it is at times chaotic, at others melodic. Generally, it is all these things and more, and it is, at all times, a masterpiece.