Being a writer for Heavy Blog comes with a lot of perks. Unlimited beer in the break room fridge, the annual staff retreat to Bora Bora, an on-call office masseuse – these are just a few of the major draws for blog employees. But probably the most personally rewarding benefit that comes with the position is the exposure to music that I would likely have never heard otherwise. There is a ton of music incoming into Heavy Blog and between promo releases submitted for review, staff members offering recommendations to each other, good old-fashioned bandcamp deep dives, and, of course, albums that spring up as a result of next-step digging from all of the above, being a staff writer is an incredible – if potentially overwhelming – opportunity to jump-start one’s stagnant and overplayed music library. I’m grateful to Heavy Blog for many things (see: personal office jacuzzis for all staff), but at the top of the list is the chance to hear bands like Big|Brave.
Hailing from Montreal, Big|Brave are a three piece that defy easy categorization. They don’t play songs much as they carve sounds straight out of their instruments, creating long-stretching passages of drone, ambient noise, and beautiful, haunting catharsis. Is it metal? Is it art rock? Is it drone? To all: yes, and who cares? These are meticulously created soundscapes by a band who are creating art on their own terms, preconceptions be damned. Using a relatively traditional instrumental setup of guitars, drums, and voice, Big|Brave seek to turn convention inside out on their latest full-length, Ardor.
Although the record feels intended to be experienced as one complete piece, Ardor divides its nearly 45-mintue runtime into three distinct tracks. All are subtle variations on the same theme: sparse, skeletal drumming, feedback-heavy swaths of guitar, and vocalist Robin Wattie’s haunting, yelping wails all forming together to create a powerfully emotional sense of foreboding, tension, and, occasionally, welcome release. There are long, lumbering stretches of the record with no changes in tempo, instrument, or tonal palate; instead, the sheer bludgeoning repetition of sound make for a hypnotic, near trance-inducing listening experience. But make no mistake: boring this is not. Big|Brave use silence and drone like a coil, allowing the squelching feedback and pummeling drums to slowly build a sonic tension that is both visceral and, at times, anxiety-inducing.
“Sound” begins the record on the most conventional footing one can expect from Ardor. For the first six minutes, thundering guitar stabs sync together with propulsive, forceful drums while Wattie coaxes listeners into Big|Brave’s world with something nearly resembling a traditional vocal verse. But, even in its relatively tame opening minutes, the record’s unique nature shines through. Seriously, what universe are these guitar sounds from? And are Wattie’s siren calls beckoning me to safety or unimaginable danger? It’s hard to tell, but the compelling and transfixing atmosphere the band creates is undeniable. And yet, as soon as the track settles into a groove, the bottom drops out. The percussion-free middle section of the track allows the tension to ratchet up to a suffocating level and when the drums finally crash back in nearly three minutes later, the release is powerful and welcome.
The album continues its minimalist-as-maximalist execution with “Lull.” The disquietly sparse instrumental of the song’s first passage allows Wattie’s vocals to truly shine. Perhaps comparisons to Bjork are inevitable, but the fragile, upper-range beauty of Wattie’s voice marries perfectly with the sinister, tribal-like ambience of the track. The single-kick, single-snare sparsity of the drums and unending waves of distorted feedback from the guitars create a sinister, nearly-palpable droning atmosphere that threatens to simply fade away around the nine-minute mark. Instead, though, the song comes roaring back, cranking up both the tempo and the instruments for a frenzied and emotional finale.
Ardor concludes with “Borer,” the longest and potentially most visceral of the album’s offerings. Sonically, the modus operandi remains the same, but it bears repeating how noteworthy the guitar tones are throughout the record, including on “Borer.” The band uses distortion and feedback as instruments themselves, pummeling the wood and strings mere mortals call “guitars” in order to excavate alien sounds that stretch like a fog over entire tracks. Passages of strings infiltrate the final track, too, and provide an extra oomph of ominous atmosphere even when more atmosphere seems an impossibility. The final moments of the record are Big|Brave at their most powerful: Wattie’s declarations of immunity and protection are both affirmational and confrontational, daring anybody to disagree with her (and the record’s) statement of purpose.
Ardor is available September 15, 2017 via Southern Lord.