Album Review: Respire – Black Line

[Church Road; 2020]

Respire’s new album Black Line opens with the sound of 2020: a garbage fire crackling in the night. Our collective hopes and dreams rise like embers, glowing briefly only to be extinguished, to disappear into the void. 

Perhaps, it’s because Respire are a Canadian DIY collective, but upon hearing “Blight”, the instrumental prologue to the band’s third and arguably most accomplished abum, I was immediately drawn to recall that iconic car on fire with no driver at the wheel. Back in 1997, Godspeed You Black Emperor! (the exclamation mark would switch position a few years later) set a new benchmark for musical evocation of the End Times with those opening moments of “East Hastings”. Even a passing listen to Respire would serve as ample indication of the great debt that this young group owe the Canadian Godfathers of cinematic anarcho-post-rock. 

Their point of differentiation, of course, is that they combine the elegiac string and horn arrangements and euphoric crescendos of post-rock with the velocity and ferocity of blackened hardcore, topped off with the painful sincerity of modern screamo. It makes for a potent cocktail, particularly because it never feels like the ornate orchestration is an afterthought, or an unearned shortcut to emotional resonance. The string and horn players are full-time members of the band; their contributions as essential as the bass, drums and guitars (the band even released an accompaniment to their last album that isolated the string and horn parts – a listening experience akin to shining a spotlight on a flower growing through a crack in the concrete). In the same way that it is often difficult to distinguish the wailing guitars from the violins in a GY!BE song from the violins, Respire’s sound is very much the sum of its parts. Beauty and brutality, hope and raging despair, coexist in almost every moment. In this way, the band’s sonic identity is a reflection of their worldview.

Their first two albums, 2016’s Gravity and Grace, and 2018’s Denouement, were visceral heart-on-sleeve portraits of personal pain, informed by their members’ experiences of addiction, suicidal ideation and love lost; but buoyed by a sense that change, and a brighter tomorrow, was possible, no matter how unlikely it looked. Black Line is written in a similar, grief-stricken mode, but the band’s gaze has turned outward, towards the multitude of afflictions plaguing the wider world, from the rise of fascism to the climate crisis. 

After the dramatically yearning and funereal introduction of “Blight”, the album begins in earnest with the roiling tumult of “Tempest”, which sees the band surveying a world going “up in flames” as competing voices gasp for air and scream themselves hoarse amidst a sea of tremolo-ed black metal riffs and blast beats. 

The wall of sound is awesome to behold. Masterfully produced by fellow Toronto native, Paul Mack, and mastered by Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Oathbreaker, Bosse-de-nage), this is an album that turns on a dime from death metal-level aural punishment to the kind of anthemic prettiness that Sigur Rós would be proud of. Everything is captured with precision, nuance, and a sense of scale that would make Christopher Nolan blush. Second single “Cicatrice” is a showcase for everything this remarkable band are capable of. This song has everything: proggy death metal guitar leads, a clap-along emo group chant, and an epic emotional denouement the likes of which we haven’t seen since Godspeed’s ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! 

It would be easy to fall into a pattern of replicating a winning formula, but Respire don’t get complacent at all. “Lost Virtue” utilises a spoken-word sample about the existential despair and the limitations of the human condition over a slow-building instrumental that ratchets up the tension to an unbearable degree, before exploding in a blizzard of blackened post-metal that somehow transitions smoothly into a crescendo that owes more than a little to Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Code (another album that featured a perfectly sound-mixed blend of heavy instrumentation and ornate orchestration). 

“Embers to End”, the other longer track on here, takes a different approach, cycling though multiple genres in short shrift to absolutely thrilling effect, coming to a head with a moment Fugazi-heads will greatly appreciate (you’ll know it when you hear it); all whilst serving as an encapsulation of all of our feelings about 2020: “survive this by screaming into yourself things can’t get worse / every year only seems to feel worse.”

Yes, Black Line gets political, and does so from a perspective that reflects the diversity of its members. “Embers to End” speaks to the immigrant or outsider experience as much as it does to the general political and societal shitshow that this year has been – but sloganeering this isn’t. There are urgent issues being addressed across these songs, but you only have to listen to how these words are delivered, i.e. more or less exclusively through unintelligible metal growls and screamo shrieks, to realise that Respire are less about the message and more about the emotion behind it: the private, personal toll of being beholden to macro forces beyond your control. 

The solution presented isn’t violent insurrection, despite what the ferocity of a lot of the music might suggest. It’s the people around us. It’s community. It’s inclusion and diversity. It’s the memory, as one song makes explicit, of our dead friends. In this regard, Respire follow in a long line of community-minded Canadian artists like the bands on the Constellation roster, or Broken Social Scene, or even early Arcade Fire. All of these groups’ activities orbited, to a greater or less extent, around the same four letter word: hope. 

It’s hope in humanity’s capacity to turn things around that flickers like a candle in the middle of Black Line’s stormy night. The more people that listen, the bigger and brighter that flame will become. 

Given the number of artists and specific albums I’ve name-dropped across this review, you might be tempted to bandy about the term, ‘derivative’ when it comes to evaluating Respire’s output, and, yes, you could definitely play a very fruitful game of Spot the Influence throughout the duration of Black Line. But to rehash Picasso’s tired saying about bad artists copying and great artists stealing, what Respire have done is take elements from a number of tastefully-chosen sources and created a unique mix of influences that results in a singularly affecting sonic identity. 

Furthermore, their approach to pacing and sequencing indicates that this is a band with capital-V Vision. Hell, if you wanted to get really deep into it, there are even some intertextual Easter Eggs on here, with several song titles referring back to previous works, creating a quasi-trilogy out of the band’s discography.

With that in mind, Black Line is a perfect culmination of everything the group has previously achieved, whilst considerably amping up the aggression and refining their songcraft. In short, it’s the band’s masterpiece, and a refutation of the generally accepted truism that the third one of the trilogy is always the worst. When the final notes of “Catacombs, Pt. II” ring out, there will be a moment of realisation for many listeners as they sit alone with their thoughts in the silence after the storm; namely, that they have just found a band that, like Godspeed, or Arcade Fire, or WU LYF before them, has made them believe in the transformational and unifying power of music once again.