Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.
ALDOUS HUXLEY, Do What You Will
When Kurt Ballou was in his early teens, his parents brought him across America in a camper van for the summer holidays. With no siblings to keep him company, music became his friend. He sat in the back of the van with his headphones on, listening to his favourite bands over and over, picking apart the sounds and how they worked – as music, and on him as a listener. He played saxophone in the school band but soon moved on to other instruments, and travelled down this path until he and his friends formed a band named Converge in the 1990s. Their early albums showed promise, but it was with 2001’s Jane Doe that they really hit their stride – one that has shown no signs of slowing, 15 years and five albums later. They have been consistently excellent for the past decade and a half, with each album hitting a remarkably high standard, despite the fact that the music they make sounds like someone driving a schoolbus off a cliff. Converge play a blitzkrieg fusion of punk, grindcore, metal and D-beat, and the cacophony of their output should theoretically be a wall of white noise permeated by occasional screams. Thankfully, that summer of forensically dissecting music has worked wonders for Ballou, as he has produced their best albums (a fact he disputes, claiming he is an engineer, not the more showbiz role of producer).
There are numerous YouTube videos of Ballou talking about how he controls the hydra-headed beast that is Converge’s sound, breaking the components down, refining, stripping, and reconnecting them as one perfectly clean aural assault. But while Converge have maintained their incredible consistency, but have never let it stop them from evolving.
Their ability to change comes from an absence of record label pressure. Big businesses don’t like change, because consumers don’t like change. As a species we tend to romanticise the knowns of the past, and fear the unknown future. We prefer the reassurances of the familiar, the road more travelled, as we march along it under the banner of ‘consistency’. It is pandering to this mindset that has lead to an artificial colourant known as E150a being added to most whiskeys in the world. Apparently the public wants all of their bottles to look the same colour, in the same way we don’t want bendy carrots or any other evidence of the wonderful chaotic individuality of nature. Look at non-chill filtering – effectively a dystopian purging of natural oils to spare the blushes of drinkers in cold climates who might not like a slight clouding of their whiskey in temperatures. That, combined with the addition of caramel, is effectively whiskey fascism – a demand that everything look the same. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s character points out in Jurassic Park, you cannot impose order on nature; chaos theory tells us that while the present dictates the future, there is still absolutely no way of predicting it. Whiskeys change – talk to anyone who drank a certain dram 20 years ago and they will tell you exactly what has happened in the intervening decades.
Change is inevitable in life, just as it is in the whiskey industry – consider all the variables; soil, climate, grain, yeast, spirit, cask, and all of the potentially ever-changing cast of human beings involved in the whole process – so maybe they should embrace it. This is one of the reasons I love the Aberlour A’Bunadh. Released in batches, it celebrates change. Like Converge, it has a controlled ferocity – there is that white noise, white heat of a cask-strength beast, but those years in the sherry butt has tamed any feral overtones; it is a beautiful, creamy malt, rich and sweet but with that white pepper kick on the finish. Bottled at around the 60% mark and aged between five and 25 years (more youth than age, though it isn’t too apparent), a drink of an A’Bunadh is like being grasped around the throat by a mechanised fist in a velvet glove. Even the bottle looks like it was designed for war; short and squat like an artillery shell, with a wide, roaring mouth.
There is, of course, a completely ridiculous back story to go with the A’bunadh, one that is told on the distillery tours; it involves time capsules, drunk workmen and a newspaper from 1898. It brings nothing to the drink itself, which has more than enough qualities to stand apart from any marketing narrative. However, if you do happen to visit Aberlour Distillery, in one of the main halls of the visitors centre is a large camera obscura photo of two hands holding a bottle of A’bunadh – the photo having been taken by Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons.
It was in this room that I first tasted this whisky, at an event hosted by Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison. They were pairing whisky with the music of Bowie and Cash, drawing parallels between the two, beneath this ethereal photo of a whisky, taken by a musician.
While I loved the Aberlour whiskies, the music was not to my taste, because I like life a little bit louder. I always thought I would grow out of metal, a genre that is generally perceived to be pretty immature. However, I also never thought I’d grow into whiskey. For me they are two sides of the same coin – a desire to crank the senses up to 11. Most people recoil when they hear Converge, just as they recoil when taking that first sip of whiskey – the intensity of both is something to be reckoned with. But Kurt Ballou and Aberlour Distillery have the ability to take disparate, intense elements – high strength/loud noise, big flavours/massive riffs – and blend them to create a constantly evolving product without sacrificing standards. Because the only consistency we should seek is that of quality.
A bottle of Batch 55 A’bunadh is an exceptionally good value €55 on MasterOfMalt – and you can watch Ballou talking about the creation of Jane Doe here. And, if you want to challenge your hearing (and definition of what constitutes music), this is what Converge sound like:
You probably need a drink now.