Big|Brave‘s music is exactly what their name says it is. “Big” actually doesn’t quite cover the enormity of their sound, but it’s a start—their 2017 album Ardor is proof enough of the expanse of sound they create in comparatively minimal terms. Amps squeal and rumble against a slow, impactful drum beat, vocalist Robin Wattie piercing the lowest of lows with her emotionally gripping vocal delivery. Every move is well-paced and deliberate, and each piece builds up into a dramatic and immense whole, an entire track typically stretching well beyond 10 minutes in pursuit of some kind of beautifully gut-wrenching moment of ecstasy. Yeah, it’s big.
It’s the “brave” part, however, that sets the Montreal band apart from so many of their contemporaries in metal and post-rock. Big|Brave’s musical movements all exist within something of a minimalist framework, some of their named influences being the likes of Tony Conrad and Steve Reich as opposed to a band like Neurosis or Southern Lord labelmates Sunn O))). Robin Wattie recently described the band’s stated pursuit: “how do we make something interesting enough for the duration of a song that is one chord?” Their fourth album A Gaze Among Them is their most elegant and accomplished demonstration of how to achieve such a contradictory aim. Much in the way Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren once described “X-French Tee Shirt” as “a full meal in two chords,” Big|Brave serves up an overflowing banquet in one.
From the moment Loel Campbell’s drums crack the surface of opening track “Muted Shifting of Space,” Big|Brave present another new permutation of a sound that’s always consuming yet consistently changing. Where once the band’s sonic bath took on a more muted form, they soon enough cranked up the overdrive and found a poetry and freedom in feedback and drone. Gaze offers a new variation on that theme, taking a more accessible approach to melody with a snarling and harsh rumble beneath it. As such, the presence of more sharply honed hooks on “Muted Shifting of Space” gives it the feel of a proper rock song, as much as that can be said of Big|Brave, particularly given the three-chord bridge. It’s measured and patient in its movements, but it undergoes a journey throughout its eight minutes, findings its destination in an immaculately scuffed-up beauty.
Not every song here moves in quite the same way. The gradually intensifying “Holding Pattern” doesn’t quite live up to its name—the chord progression might technically remain the same throughout its ascent, but the volume and impact continues to raise, until Wattie and Mathieu Ball’s guitars scorch the landscape, and Campbell’s drums pound with a primal abandon. The 10-plus minute “Body Individual” (the only song here that actually extends for this long) is built more around space and suggestion, Wattie’s voice the most prominent musical element among an ominous ambience until the tension is broken by an explosive groove. And closer “Sibling” moves with a quasi-industrial churn, closer to the likes of recent Low than any metal band of note.
At the heart of the album, suggested in its title, is an examination of gender and power, spaces and how they’re given or consumed, and not only surviving but transcending the kind of abuse and trauma inflicted within a patriarchal society. And for how gradually everything progresses, the payoff is a pretty spectacular form of catharsis. Few moments on record this year have felt quite so dynamically cleansing as when Wattie yells “You don’t get to do this!” at the end of “Muted Shifting of Space.” In “Sibling,” she comes to a realization about doing what’s necessary to make it through something instead of confronting it, taking action or healing: “I’ve only been caught up in just getting by.”
Big|Brave explore space and they create space, but more than ever they show a kind of comfort and command in it. They’re in control of it. They’re empowered by it. A Gaze Among Them doesn’t dwell, necessarily, nor does it rage. It is, instead, a statement of purpose and strength in the form of an unshakable sonic fortress.