Before it became a discount music graveyard, Insound was one of the premier online record stores. Though I punched a timecard at my own local hesher hangout, as the internet first began to blossom with fields of mp3s and obscure CDs my growing hunger for new music couldn’t be satisfied by our main distributor. I flushed down hundreds of hours combing through Insound’s discographies, bios, and early online blog/news offerings. One such article has been branded onto my brain, though my admittedly thin efforts in digging it up have not yielded the text so it’s possible that memory’s self-serving editorial abilities have kicked in.
This was a piece on Converge by Jessica Hopper, shortly after the release of Jane Doe. I was already a huge fan of Hopper’s from her Punk Planet column (a totemic magazine that I miss every day) and knew her to be a trenchant and brutally opinionated critic. She was no less so in this piece, where she opened up by dismissing a different band called Coalesce, which she thought was hot garbage. Since Coalesce and Converge shared bookended letters and operated in the same heavy music scene, Hopper admitted to confusing the two, until she realized through listening to Jane Doe that Converge was “the good one.” This stung at the time, though I love both bands, but it’s hard to make a case for Coalesce. In many ways they’re on the same level as Converge but also diametrically opposed, gurgling in the lowest tar pits of the blues where Jane Doe is a masterwork of high screeches and treble-soaked fingertaps. Converge displays their pain in searing flashes, Coalesce charges at it like an enraged bull.
Despite this online takedown, Coalesce has its fans, a band’s band at the very least. But their hedge-maze song structures and herniated gurgle vocals slid them into a very particular margin. If you were into metal and/or hardcore you probably had a strong opinion one way or the other, and that’s not even considering the scabrous politics of the straight-edge scene that incubated the band. Coalesce were masters of knotty time-signatures and defiant bile, but they didn’t really have a career-defining record like Jane Doe, at least, not until their post-reunion album Ox and its reflectively-titled follow-up Ox EP. This is where they finally found the blues at the heart of their rollicking, drawing in the wider world while still operating with the precision of the mandala on the cover of each.
I was finally able to see Coalesce on the tour Ox and the Ox EP, and seeing them live completed the puzzle of my enjoyment of them. It coincided with a description of the band that Sean Ingram gave in a podcast some time ago, that they were primarily a “drum and bass” band. This may feel at odds with their music, which is so meticulously arranged and executed per the whims of the guitar, but seeing them live revealed just how guitarist Jes Steineger constructed this music on record and tore it down live. He played pickless, weaving distorted textures on stage almost as often as off, not so much at odds with the rest of the band but sliding in and out of their plane of existence. This is how they’ve always operated, with the bass and drums not only anchoring the songs but floating the ship while six turbulent strings buffeted band and audience alike. It was orchestrated chaos that kept even the die-hard karate kids in the pit at bay, which is no small feat.
Bass is rarely the prevalent instrument in metal. No one hankers for a blistering bass solo in every song, let alone two or three. That’s not to say the instrument’s role isn’t vital, but it’s mostly used to glue the roadmap of the drums to the seemingly improvisational flights of fancy of the guitars. In Coalesce’s case the bass and the drums are the songs, sprung from the influence of Steineger’s guitar work but carrying the melodic weight as well as the structural, cementing the band as heavy, gnarled, and eschewing melody without descending into pure noise or drone. It’s not an easy listen, but roots out a blues buried miles-deep, a natural continuation of where rock began, music that protests the pain of life from all angles.
Coalesce’s spirit lives on in bands like Florida’s Meatwound, who surges with a similar drum and bass metal formula. Their second album Largo was released last year, calling out to me from a Tampa record bin while visiting some friends, and I later learned that they have ex-members of No Idea metal bands like Holy Mountain and combatwoundedveteran as well as many others. This is an A+ pedigree as far as I’m concerned, and the album crashes through with that Ampeg-cranked skronk that just fires me up. The swamp can’t help but percolate through, a mire of irregular but still discernible crashes and bangs, the music of storms and mayhem.
Where other, more celebrated crossover bands focus on Tony Iommi’s contributions to Black Sabbath’s metal ur-text, Meatwound and Coalesce rip from the Birmingham crew’s adherence to rhythm and mood. Melodic hooks aren’t needed—by building off the propulsive throb of bass-built blues licks the guitars swirl around, the voice an ominous bark, the songs careering freight trains. Meatwound is meaner and more compelling than the most compressed hard-rock knuckleheads. They squeeze sonic juice straight from the lower hertz, crafting guttural low-end catharsis in a similar mood as Converge, but without the flirtation with melodrama. Where they work with crescendo, Meatwound and Coalesce cascade through the mud in a cold rollicking groove. Both are dark shades of the blues, but I’ll always have a soft-spot for the bottom rung.
Photo by Shannon Corr.