VITAL, the fifth full-length album from the Montreal post-metal trio BIG|BRAVE, packs trance-like waves of musical tension, as if sinking through quicksand.
The sonically majestic record, released in April by Southern Lord Recordings, thematically explores living through present-day racialization, as reflected by lead single “Half Breed.” On that song, vocalist and guitarist Robin Wattie uses a passage from Alexander Chee’s 2018 book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, for lyrics, exploring life as a mixed-race individual between “the ruling class” and “those who are ruled.”
The instrumentals across VITAL starkly support the weight of Wattie’s words. “Of This Ilk” and the title track, which together close the five-song record, feature bouts of particularly brisk instrumentation in their latter segments, but most of the music sticks to a slower tempo that feels resoundingly grandiose. The contrast between the force of the performances and the spaciousness of the song constructions adds to the tension.
The music feels forcefully immersive, like venturing across a wind-swept metaphysical plain with little but an inward light. Although the music’s landscape feels sparse, the melodies are powerful.
Every element of the music, from the thunder-crack drums to the gale-force guitars, feels pronouncedly poignant. For this latest effort, Wattie and founding guitarist Mathieu Ball created with drummer Tasy Hudson, who joined up with the group after the release of their 2019 effort, A Gaze Among Them.
Across VITAL, BIG|BRAVE utilize richly compelling dynamics, from the tensely repetitious riffing on album opener “Abating the Incarnation of Matter” to the more spaced-out hits of “Half Breed.” Even in its slowest moments, VITAL feels jarringly resolute.
Below, check out what BIG|BRAVE and vocalist and guitarist Robin Wattie have to say about creating VITAL in the shadow of what they call “fast-paced lifestyles and an assault of sound.”
Thanks for your time! The new record is very compelling. How would you describe some of the creative sparks that got this album creation process going? What was that point of origin like?
The creative sparks that got the process going were those of our original concepts.
With every album, we branch off from where we started and explore. But we always return to our original austere soundscapes and primordial song structures, all while experimenting with what our instruments are capable of in relation to space, air, and amplification.
It’s a mix of trying to keep it structurally and compositionally as simple as possible all while trying to come up with new ways of making the electric guitar sound. It seems that with every album we start by taking many steps back before being able to proceed any further with new material.
The sonic imprint of the project, involving that sort of restrained but resounding heaviness, is very striking. In a broad sense, are there particular sonic ideas that you had in mind as a sort of inspiration when crafting the instrumentals?
Sonically, we made a concerted effort in keeping it as bleak and bare as possible. It is easy to get caught up in adding more as we are surrounded by fast-paced lifestyles and an assault of sound. Just because you can add more, doesn’t necessarily mean the songs need more. It is an exercise in restraint, and to slow down our pace, our own breath. It is an exercise in active listening in what each song requires to feel whole.
These days, what sort of keeps you connected to the sounds that appear on Vital? What do you like and find edifying about the band’s particular mode of musical expression, involving that unique form of heaviness?
As much as we love heavy music, we do not necessarily strive to create heavy music specifically. We play with fragility and dynamics in composition and ebb and flow into and out of that heaviness almost subconsciously. But the sounds that speak to us the most are often indeed loud, heavy, and gritty. There is simply something about amplitude and gain that feels right and appropriate when trying to express our outlook on the world.
For this album, how did you tend to relate the lyrical themes to the sound of the songs? Did you intentionally aim to express some of the sentiments via the instrumentals? The sounds of the songs themselves feel very emotive.
The lyrics paired with music quite unintentionally yet perfectly. It came down to what sounded best with the melody and phrasing I [Robin] had loosely drafted. With that said, if the songs were solely instrumental, I believe they would still emote. It is when vocals are mixed in where most listeners hear the emotions best.
There is, of course, a good deal of personal expression in these songs- the themes are striking. Is there something that you hope listeners find in the album? For this record, how do you tend to relate to (eventual) listeners?
I hope listeners find whatever they can in this album. If they are moved to a feeling or compelled to a thought, regardless of which thought and what kind of feeling (and I do mean the full spectrum of thought and feeling), then it is all I can hope for. However negative, however positive.
I do hope, however, that some of the lyrical content can reach at least one or two minds or hearts, and that in it they find a voice or solace or catharsis, or at least feel heard.
Would you say that there is a level of catharsis in the music, from your perspective? How would you tend to conceptualize the journey that you take within the record?
There is definitely a level of catharsis in the music. Especially when played live as there are certain things that we’ve found that can only be expressed sonically. But we also play with tension quite a bit. Now that shows are not a thing for the moment, the three of us often talk about how much we can’t wait to play this new record live, to physically express what it is we’ve worked on. Without the possibility to play live, to release, this tension is now greater than ever.
Outside of BIG|BRAVE, what music of any sort have you been connecting with lately?
A lot of minimalistic music. Time-based music. Music to breathe to. Music with space— Stuart Dempster and the Deep Listening Band, Julius Eastman—Unjust Malaise, Harold Budd (the works!), Henry Birdsey—Half-Dragged .
Check out VITAL below, and pick up a copy on vinyl or a merch bundle here.
Images courtesy of BIG|BRAVE. Featured image credit: Mathieu Ball.