Album Review: BIG|BRAVE – nature morte

[Thrill Jockey; 2023]

On their sixth studio album, elemental trio BIG|BRAVE dive ever deeper into their harsher, more abrasive and expansive side to astonishing affect. It’s not their most immediate work, but it may well be their best, and for a band with such a rich back catalogue, that’s quite a claim. Robin Wattie (guitar and vocals), Matthieu Ball (guitar), and Tasey Hudson (drums) work in symbiosis and also juxtaposition. Their sound is at times beautiful, harrowing, and violent, but always meticulous. There is an anger at the heart of the record – at the way of things, at the patriarchy, and how we’ve let things drift to the point of collective insanity. nature morte is the sound of a band at the end of their tether, but at the peak of their powers. 

“carvers, farriers and knaves” kicks off the album in abrupt style, with Wattie’s anguished voice declaring “It claims you / A disease for keeps” over a squall of guitars. It’s a jarring start, a rallying call to grab the attention of the listener and unsettle them as quickly as possible. The gender politics at the forefront of the messages aren’t those that suit niceties, and BIG|BRAVE aren’t a band to deliver what you want. This is a band playing by their own rules and growing with each release. It’s clear early on that “carvers, farriers and knaves” is the most relentless song that BIG|BRAVE have produced to date and has some of the hallmarks of recent collaborators The Body as it gets ever more punishing and brutal. Wattie wrings every last drop of anger from her voice, while Hudson and Ball’s twin sonic assault brings to mind the Orwellian idea of a boot stamping you in the face forever. A rapturous opening.

There has always been a vulnerability at the heart of BIG|BRAVE, and this is none more evident than on “the one who bornes a weary load”. There is a raging anger at the core of the track, but as slices of sounds are restrained and stripped back, the contrast between the pumeling heady rush of the track’s opening and the latter parts of the track are beguiling. Wattie’s pained voice is high in the mix agains a backdrop of tempered guitars, and there’s a sense of a band wearing their wounds for all to see. The subjugation of femininity is central to the narrative of the track, the notion of desire being a construct of the male gaze and the limitations of performativity as outlined by hegemonic masculinity and its all-pervading construction of a “correct” form of womanhood. The rape culture and sense of ownership over female bodies, identities, and potentialities, is laid out by lines such as “Because I have this kind of form, it happened to me / Because I have this kind of body, it happened to be me.” It’s a tough listen, but that’s the point. We all need to be checking and acknowledging our privileges on a regular basis. 

“my hope renders me a fool” is an instrumental piece that’s an extension of Ball’s work from his wonderful Amplified Guitar album from last year. There’s a total sense of melancholy here, and an image of a dying machine is evoked. The wheezing death rattle comes from the drawn out distorted notes that bleed into feedback, the narrative drive of the track is towards submission and an acceptance of the end. It tracks the beauty of decay, the poetic dynamic of shifting from slabs of noise to gently strummed guitars to signal the ending of things. There is, as there always has been, beauty amongst the rage. 

The highlight of the record comes with the devastating double header of “the fable of subjugation” and “a parable of the trusting”. The tracks feel like companion pieces to one another, like two movements of a suite of mistrust and frustration. The former has an old folk music tinge to it, although one obfuscated eventually by pulverising guitars and punishing drums. The track begins with Wattie engaged in an almost spiritual cantation on the falsities of masculinity – “I am a man who loves you purely / I am a man who needs you truly” in a cracked, less than convincing tone. The two tracks take up almost 20 minutes of the record’s run time, and as they twist and turn they take sharper dives into an almost nihilistic abyss. This is primal scream therapy. Catharsis through creation. Put simply, it’s breathtaking. 

BIG|BRAVE are at the apex of bands pushing the boundaries of drone/noise metal. Where their previous albums have seen them refine their sound, here they expand in more confident and progressive ways. Wattie’s lyrics – often minimal whilst always deeply meaningful – and intense vocal performances place her alongside Kristin Hayter as one of the most essential voices in the field. nature morte is a wonderful, difficult album that requires patience and indulgence. The rewards are huge, though.