Some records are greatly enhanced by the setting in which the listening experience occurs. Vital, by Montreal experimental metal trio Big|Brave, is an immersive, best-when-cranked-loud kind of record, so that means two options: headphones or you get out the big speakers. It sounds fantastic on either, but I highly recommend the latter. Place the speakers facing slightly inward towards you on your left and right and let her rip.
Some facts: this is the band’s fifth LP, their fourth for adventurous heavy music label Southern Lord, their second engineered by Seth Manchester (The Body, Daughters, Lingua Ignota), and their first with drummer Tasreen Hudson, who joined the band for the tour supporting their previous record A Gaze Among Them. Big|Brave’s sound has evolved gradually over their past four records, and the trio took advantage of pandemic isolation to write and record their most accomplished and yes, vital work to date.
“Abating the Incarnation of Matter” is the ferocious tone-setter. Guitarists Robin Wattie and Mathieu Ball have become master sculptors of noise, shaping expansive slabs of heavy guitar riffs and feedback, as big and brave as their band name suggests, set to patient, pondering tempos. This track is certainly a fine example of that. However, some interesting sonic moments occur in the relatively restrained passages. There is a middle section (just after the four-minute mark) of widely spaced drum hits and a reverbed but muted guitar chug that sounds like rumbling thunder, followed by a pregnant pause. Big|Brave then erupt with a swagger, and Waddie lets loose with a commanding vocal performance. This is a thrilling moment, to say the least, and one among many.
“Half Breed” somehow brings it up a notch. A more direct political song, Waddie addresses a long history of racial injustice that is not always seen. “Pattern for history of all half breeds hidden in every culture, historically we are alone,” she sings over the band’s signature start/stop lurch. The press release for Vital states that the album “explores the weight of race and gender, endurance and navigating other people’s behaviors, observation, and protest”, as well as “what it means navigating the outside world in a racialized body”. This track does all of that with astonishing clarity. It hypnotically builds in intensity, and Wattie’s vocals follow suit as she and Mathieu conjure an electrifying whirlwind of squall. A striking percussive element emerges as well. It is a distant metallic clank, like someone dropping a lead pipe on a concrete floor. Gradually, all sound gets stripped away until it is just Waddie’s voice, which has grown understandably weary.
“Wited. Still and All…” acts as a brief and foreboding ambient interstitial piece before “Of This Ilk”, another staggering track that, along with “Half Breed”, are compelling meditations on damage suffered silently and form the aching heart of this record. While the damage on “Half Breed” is inflicted by others, “Of This Ilk” explores the self-inflicted kind caused by a desire to be someone else. “Strike me with that desire, the burn of what I’ll never be / Born to this body, I’ll starve of waiting.” There is a chorus of sorts, which features another strikingly new element: backing vocals, presumably from Mathieu. These are not harmonies but more of an unhinged yelling that nevertheless perfectly complements Waddie’s tense crooning.
This chorus progressively alters at each pass, going from “I want to be you” to “I need to be you” to “I can’t be you, I’ll never be you.” The band plays with greater extremes of start and stop. Mirroring and doubling down on the pregnant pause they had done on the opening track, they go completely silent for a full ten seconds. Can silence be intense? If so, this is it. They return full fury and then end the song with a three-minute outro of gentle sparkle and fade that resembles the glowing embers of a fire going out.
The closing title track is a summary of the explorations of the previous tracks. There’s that metallic clank again. Drum hits trickle in and multiply, pockets of feedback sizzle, and overlap as the band steadily builds up a tower of sound. Wattie wails with a siren-like intensity; her more prominent vocals have been the biggest revelation and treat on Vital, with confidence and a timbre that slices right through the maelstrom of sound the band generates. At the 6:30 mark, all hell breaks loose. It is the big crescendo moment, and it is well worth the slow build. If you’re listening on big speakers, this part will engulf you.
Engulfing is a word that could describe the record as a whole and Big|Brave’s sound in general. That is not unfamiliar terrain for them, but they have refined their sound into a powerful stormfront that strikes aggressively but with a gracefulness that welcomes the listener into the electrified space the band create. To adopt a term from their labelmates and drone metal masters Sunn O))), it’s life metal. Listen mindfully, and you may feel revitalized.