Big|Brave – Vital

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Big|Brave set out to prove that the spaces in between can be just as moving as any amount of emotive sound. It’s a project whose concept is in contrast, rooted in minimalist experimentation. Having dwelled in that space for over nine years, continuing to refine their sound further and further, it’s no surprise that Big|Brave’s music has only grown more personal.

Their lineup as a trio seems finally solidified, as touring drummer Tasy Hudson joins Robin Wattie and Mathieu Ball in the studio. In that sense, with Hudson in a fully collaborative role, this record marks new territory for Big|Brave—important context listening to a new project that is less cohesive than the singular vision of their prior record A Gaze Among Them, yet in many ways more provocative. Where A Gaze Among Them mainly relied on the sheer force of distorted guitar for a surprisingly complex array of sounds, Vital expands the Big|Brave palate with a variety of textures—tubular bells, strings, wind chimes. Pointedly repeated lyrics and droning rhythms produce a cyclical sense, like crashing waves, there is a push and pull.

“Abating the Incarnation of Matter” immediately satisfies us with the classic Big|Brave rumble. The song builds steadily, relying on the simple yet unusual rhythm and Wattie and Ball’s dueling guitars. Eventually the unmistakable texture of acoustic guitar adds a layer of complexity to the soundscape unavailable via effects pedals alone. A whole world of sound later, the final and title track feel like a separate work entirely, yet similarly satisfying. “Vital” opens with a low drone, so quiet it’s difficult to tell what is producing the sound. Each component part of the composition arrives methodically, like a survey of the field ahead. By the time Wattie is halfway through her poem, the dirge-like beat emerges and the song begins to take shape. The syncopated crunch of guitar and cymbal are exemplary of the variety possible in drone music.

The lyrics of “Half Breed” are a passage from a book so striking that Wattie simply sings the excerpt verbatim as a means to process it. Alexander Chee’s book of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel explores in part the history of how mixed-race people are erased and denied human rights across cultures. The words therefore are surprisingly literal, a complete departure from Wattie’s typical metaphorical style though still punctuated with her characteristic off-kilter delivery. Pounding percussion undergirds roiling layers of distortion, crowned by tolling bells. The music video depicts Wattie slowly being buried alive, we can’t see by whom, we can’t even see the dirt as it lands—it just appears suddenly, both effectively and covertly suffocating. 

An equally bone-chilling theme haunts the chorus in “Of This Ilk.” Wattie slowly draws out and repeats the words “I want to be you,” while a muffled and hoarse voice chants along in unison. It’s the kind of brain-tickling heart-stopping moment that stops your mind from wandering, and forces you to hold your headphones a little tighter, maybe rewinding, just to make sure you heard what you thought you heard. A several-beat pause separates this harrowing passage from the climactic build. The recently debuted Roadburn Redux video features an out-of-focus Wattie singing to the camera, but as the second act begins she’s suddenly turned away and frantically scouring herself with a steel wool scrubber (It’s not particularly graphic, but it is as unsettling to see as that sounds so view at your risk). Wattie makes it perfectly clear that this song is about the cultural pressure on people of color to bleach their skin brighter, the pervasively violent hegemony of whiteness. 

Despite more variety, much of the sonic palette across the album is a steady continuation of Big|Brave’s minimalist approach to maximalism. The lyrics, on the other hand, are more direct than ever. Big|Brave has always been personal, but filtered through metaphor. Expressive and relieving, but subtly so. This music feels not so much cathartic now as excoriating, an effort to strip away the bullshit—a process that is both cleansing and critically clarifying.

Label: Southern Lord

Year: 2021

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