Album Review: BIG | BRAVE – Vital

[Southern Lord; 2021]

With pretty much every BIG | BRAVE record comes a shift in the line-up of the band, and today the core duo of Robin Wattie and Mathieu Ball are now joined by Tasy Hudson on drums. Although a touring member since 2019, this is the first BIG | BRAVE record that Hudson has played on. Wattie and Ball have been working together since 2012, yet their shift to realising that ‘maximum volume yields maximum results’ came about quite by chance. They initially wrote experimental folk, but a fateful rehearsal saw Wattie with no acoustic guitar and this led the fledgling band to play with electric guitars and huge amps. Traitors! On their latest album, Vital, there remains an evident fragility at the heart of the band’s sound; the sheer visceral noise they produce is colourful rather than dour, uplifting rather than the dispirited nihilism that many doom bands centre their work around.

“Abating the Incarnation of Matter” kicks things off – and yes you’re right to think that BIG | BRAVE have excellent song titles. We’re in the same sonic territory here as when they last left us on 2019’s superb A Gaze Among Them, with the distorted somnambulistic dirge of the guitars underpinning Wattie’s enthused yet exasperated vocal hollering. The pensive drumming allows for gaps in the downbeat onslaught that eventually becomes a slumber as the song deconstructs into its constituent parts, with each being unsure of what to do next – a statement on collective unity.  

BIG | BRAVE have always trodden the line between doom metal and drone with aplomb, yet Wattie’s voice elevates the band far above many of their peers. It’s an energised and cathartic release of pent up emotions, urgent and in need of attention. This is best exemplified on Vital with “Half Breed”, where the vocals are given space to breathe rather than fighting for focus amongst the tumult of the guitars and drums. There is a delicate sweetness to her voice that is understated, majestic and often underused.

“Wited. Still and All…” begins with mesmeric droning sounds, a respite from the cacophonous sound so far. The high-pitched vocals that Wattie uses here is unlike anything we have heard from her to date, and it is menacing rather than sweet with the accompaniment of the shuddering and scraping noises from the guitars. It sounds like a mantra, a call for mindful serenity in the middle of the chaos and din of life. It’s almost a companion piece to “This Deafening Verity” from their last album, yet where that track was almost tranquil in its harrowing nature, here the band conjure up something far more disturbing. It would fit perfectly with a Lynchian shot of a car’s headlights driving through an empty road, the ghostly textures of the track paralleling the unsettling stillness of the pictures as we wait for something to happen in the twisted way we know to expect.  

The subject of skin lightening is central to “Of This Ilk”. It’s a controversial area within the beauty industry (to say the least), and rather than a total condemnation of those perpetuating damaging beauty myths, the track is a show of solidarity to all those who have seen their sense of self-esteem damaged by the hegemonic cultural demands for white/lighter skin. BIG | BRAVE are a political band, and much of their work to date has seen a degree of angst and righteous fury which is impossible to not find compelling, yet here the personal is political. They draw attention to a plight that all too often goes unrecognised, as mediated images bombard an increasingly globalised world with a narrow(ing) range of aesthetic ideals, and Wattie has made it clear in press interviews for the record that this is something that has affected her a great deal.

“Of This Ilk” becomes stifled around the half way mark, before unleashing a wall of noise after a second’s pause for thought. The thunderous drums and monolithic pulverising guitar sounds are rapturous before coming to a rest again, wherein the track becomes a masterclass in minimalism. This third ‘movement’ of the song adds a surprising tenderness to the track. This is BIG | BRAVE at their most experimental, their biggest and bravest, and it’s the best song they have ever recorded; its seismic shifts in tone and tempo highlight a band at the peak of their creative powers, their confidence all too clear to see.

The title track brings proceedings to a rapturous denouement. It’s a funereally paced squall of guitars and feedback, hypnotic in both tone and tempo. It’s the very definition of elemental music, and the blissful physical rush when the guitars crash in after a pensive opening is a thing to revel in. Few bands can pull off such a tried and tested formula in as fresh a sounding way as BIG | BRAVE can; it’s a skill they’ve honed over five albums that have seen them develop and mature in a way which few others have.

BIG | BRAVE have produced the album of their career to date with Vital. It’s a rich tapestry of sound, message and meaning with multiple layers to unpick with each listen. The feral vitriol of their earlier releases has been tempered a little by the relatively clean production values of the record, but also by a seemingly increased confidence in the band themselves. Their records have always been documents of beautiful rage, yet there is a sense now that they feel more established within “the scene” and within themselves, that they more fully understand that theirs is not a fleeting presence but one with longevity, development and progression.