Album Review: Converge & Chelsea Wolfe – Bloodmoon: I

[Epitaph; 2021]

Listener… Listener… Be on your guard. Converge’s power grows… It rises to its peak under the hour of the blood moon. By its glow, the aimless spirits of musicians slain in the name of the light return to flesh. Listener… please be careful.

* * *

On a stage in the Dutch town of Tilburg in 2016, the sea-sick harmonics of “Wretched World” rang out over the heads of assembled festival-goers. Originally off the 2009 Converge album, Axe to Fall, and featuring members of Genghis Tron, the song was now being performed under the Roadburn festival-exclusive banner of ‘Blood Moon’: a collaborative supergroup featuring all four members of Converge, Stephen Brodsky of (amongst countless others) Cave-In, Mutoid Man, and Old Man Gloom (not to mention one Converge album), and producer and multi-instrumentalist, Ben Chisholm. 

The set thus far had featured reworkings of some of Converge’s long-form compositions, a cover of The Cure’s “Disintegration”, and guest vocals from Neurosis’ Steve Von Till on another Axe to Fall track.

However, it was when Chelsea Wolfe appeared next to Jacob Bannon, darkly mysterious and demure, and sang those opening words from “Wretched World”, “down by your side / I watch the dreary light,” that the pieces fell into place for a genuine, heavy music nerd’s ‘a-ha!’ moment. Wolfe sang on the set’s closing three songs, including “In Her Shadow” (which feels like the clearest predecessor to some of the more Southern Gothic Folk-leaning material on Bloodmoon: I), as well as a drastically reimagined rendition of classic cut, “Last Light”. It was a marriage so obvious, so fertile with creative opportunity, that a collaborative album of original material was, everyone felt at the time, surely inevitable.

Five years down the line and neither the crushing weight of fan expectation, nor a global pandemic, has been able to stop Bloodmoon: I from coming to fruition. Even though Baton Rouge sludge titans Thou may have beaten them to the punch with their excellent 2020 album with Emma Ruth Rundle, the appetite for ‘Converge Wolfe’ has not dwindled.

In fact, that anticipation was whipped to a fever pitch by the advance release of the project’s opening title track, which pairs the gothic grandiosity of Wolfe’s work with the calamitous cacophony of Converge to captivating effect. She is the wailing high priestess, presiding over a sacrificial blood ritual, whilst Bannon is the feral werewolf crawling between and around her legs, snarling and bearing his teeth. The whole track is drenched in atmosphere; with Kurt Ballou’s production emphasising detail whilst finding a perfect balance between thunderous low-end and piercing, tremulous guitar leads. It’s a doomy, gothic, terrifically hammy post-metal behemoth that builds to a crescendo worthy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Swans. In short, “Blood Moon” sounds exactly like what you’d hope a collaboration between these artists would sound like.

It also sets a bar that the project struggles to reach again over the remaining 50 minutes of the record. That’s not to say that Bloodmoon: I isn’t a success. The players involved are too talented and there’s too much quality here to make that case. It’s just that, after such an assured start, it feels like the project is trying to find its footing, sometimes throwing too many ideas at the wall, sometimes leaving songs underdeveloped. 

“Viscera of Men” is a collection of interesting sections – a 15-second long D-beat fakeout, some cathedral-sized doom-metal, and a tangent into ghoulish chanting and beautifully arranged gothic folk – which never quite coalesces into a single, satisfying composition. Second single “Coil” recalls Bannon’s output under the Wear Your Wounds moniker, pairing acoustic guitar with clean vocals. It feels a bit weightless, until Nate Newton’s ribcage-rattling bass add some heft, but the second-half pivot into galloping quasi-thrash metal, whilst energising, does feel a bit… silly? By the time Stephen Brodsky is belting out his vocals over a showstopping guitar solo, it’s hard not to shake the impression that Bloodmoon has gone past the wrong side of OTT. I’ve seen someone compare it to music at a Cirque du Soleil performance or an illusionist’s stage show, which is not the vibe anyone wanted this project to aim for. 

The song highlights the key problem with Bloodmoon: I, and its weakest link: Stephen Brodsky. To be clear, it gives me zero pleasure to write that. Brodsky is, after all, a living legend and a perennial nice guy of rock to rival Dave Grohl himself: he has been part of so many high quality and influential bands, not to mention being the MVP on countless covers on “2 Minutes to Late Night”. It just turns out that the album has been falsely advertised as a Converge and Chelsea Wolfe collaboration, when, in reality, it’s just as much a Brodsky album. He shares vocal duties on five tracks, and his melodic sensibility, which recalls the anthemicness of early 90s grunge and alt-metal like Alice in Chains or Soundgarden (as highlighted on his Cave-In output from Jupiter onwards), rubs awkwardly against the tone set by Wolfe and Bannon. He’s clearly having a blast, but the songs that prominently feature his vocals, such as “Flower Moon”, “Failure Forever” and “Daimon” stand out for their tongue-in-cheek approach to his lyrics and performance (it honestly feels like he’s going to start singing about the skeletons’ bones being their money on the latter track). Let’s just say, there’s a little too much Mutoid Man in the mix. It doesn’t help that, to my ears, Brodsky sounds a lot like the guy from The Raconteurs who isn’t Jack White. And that dude sounds pretty out of place next to the high priestess and the werewolf.

Not that all of Bloodmoon: I’s problems can be attributed to Brodsky. This is a collaborative project, after all. It is merely suggestive of a vision diluted, of too many witches around the cauldron, so to speak. Arguably the weakest track on the album, “Scorpion’s Sting”, is, in fact, a solo spotlight for Wolfe, which takes a clichéd chord progression on a meandering gothic-folk walk towards a stank-face guitar solo that will conjure up unwelcome visions of Muse’s Matt Bellamy doing unspeakable things to his Manson MBM-1 signature six-string.

And yet, naturally, everything sounds impeccable, and there are enough bright spots to warrant the cost of admission. “Tongues Playing Dead” and “Lord of Liars” up the tempo, playing like they could happily slot in on the next Converge album proper. Ballou unfurls a few of his trademark windingly intricate riffs, that somehow manage to be both math-y and emotionally affecting, whilst Koller and Newton prove why they’re still the most formidable rhythm section in metal. The former track would have benefitted from Wolfe on the chorus refrain rather than Brodsky, an observation backed up emphatically by the absolutely revelatory pairing of Wolfe and Bannon on “Lord of Liars”, which is an absolute barnstormer, and the most accessible thing Converge have ever put to record. Wolfe’s vocals are higher in the mix than elsewhere on the album, and it serves the track beautifully, providing pointed contrast to Bannon’s rabid barking. It deserves to be heralded as a classic of the genre, whilst simultaneously underlining quite how scattershot this album is.

On the other hand, penultimate song “Crimson Stone” is a track that, like the opener, nails the ‘Bloodmoon brief’, and finds a happy balance between the project’s roster of vocalists, placing Wolfe front and centre, allowing Brodsky to complement her with understated backing vocals, and giving Bannon the chance to sink his teeth into the dramatic tipping-point. It’s a slow-building, ornately arranged track, running the gamut from delicate beauty to hair-raising heaviness. It’s rousing stuff, even if Wolfe repeatedly singing the words “crimson stone” isn’t particularly affecting. 

If the album had ended on that song’s final ringing notes, there would have been no complaints. However, the closing “Blood Dawn” adds little to the overall experience, despite being a slice of gothic Americana that would be perfect for playing over the end credits of the eventual movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Bloodmoon: I is a curious beast then; an opportunity for highly regarded artists with mutual affinity to get together and make the music they want to without concession to expectations, to stretch beyond their comfort zones and make something grand and theatrical; and yet, it somehow isn’t equal to the sum of its parts. Converge have an unbroken 25 year long stretch of great-to-masterpiece level albums behind them, so it’s strange to consider where this fits in their legacy.

That I in the album title suggests it isn’t a one-off. There is certainly potential here, but this first Bloodmoon record definitely feels like a testing ground. There is an uncertainty in tone, and a clashing of sensibilities that is thrilling at times, awkward at others. The conditions under which it was partially recorded remotely can’t have made collaboration feel entirely natural, even if Ballou’s typically immaculate production successfully masks that strange reality. Maybe for Bloodmoon: II, they’ll all manage to get in a room together and the High Priestess will be able preside over some truly blood-curdling musical alchemy in-person.