Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of drone, the style is a great deal more varied in practice. For drone metal in particular, the idea of drawing out doom to an even more low, slow and meditative state relies on each individual band’s interpretation of the genre they’re extrapolating from. As much as drone metal has been reduced to Sunn O))) memes in some circles, you’ll find only basic overlap between the duo’s approach to the subgenre and that of bands like The Body, Earth and Jesu. Similarly, burgeoning acts like BIG|BRAVE continue to tinker with the drone metal formula, with their latest outing on A Gaze Among Them illuminating new shades and hues of their sound.
BIG|BRAVE conjure massive sonic displays on A Gaze Among Them with a relatively small ensemble, featuring a regular lineup of guitarists Robin Wattie and Mathieu Ball and drummer Loel Campbell rounded out by guest musicians Thierry Amar (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mt Zion) on contrabass and producer Seth Manchester on synths. The group’s fourth album in five years takes a bit of a different approach from their previous release Ardor, which had a more “traditional” drone metal structure of three 10- to 15-minute tracks. Instead, A Gaze Among Them has an expanded five-song tracklist and noticeably more rock-oriented approach. At a basic level, the record is akin to Sleep‘s Dopesmoker, albeit with an ear for modern rock offshoots.
Opener “Muted Shifting of Space” is a fantastic representation of the band’s core sound, with a hypnotic, repeating riff bellowing out over steady, stomping percussion. In many ways, the track mirrors more linear post-metal compositions, perhaps most similar to tracks from Pelican or Russian Circles. Along the way, the band take after Earth’s method of subtly shifting and building upon the song’s core structure with additional guitar lines and bursts of melody, all the while preserving a truly massive atmosphere. The midsection and conclusion become increasingly noisier throughout to flesh out the track’s sonic offerings with a slightly darker tone.
Atop all of this soars Wattie’s distinct and passionate vocals. She maintains a powerful delivery throughout the album while always matching the intensity and development of the music. In general, her style feels like a sort of reflexive call-and-response that suits the band’s focus on atmosphere. The strength and projection of her voice feels like she’s sending each note sailing out into an enormous canyon, while also carrying a pained undertone caused by the recognition that the only reply is her own echo.
The album progresses with a focus on the band’s core sound while also moving into adjacent directions. “Holding Pattern” slowly builds towards a post-rock-esque crescendo, complete with massive, feedback-laden riffs wrapping around a persistent eruption of cymbals and toms. The album’s middle and longest track, “Body Individual,” opens with a chilling atmosphere created by Amar’s contrabass and the band’s obscured guitar lines. Wattie’s vocals are nearly isolated from the music, yet the heightened visibility only reveals her talents further. The quieter atmosphere explodes with an even larger and noisier crescendo than the previous track, making for perhaps the album’s most dynamic composition. After a brief interlude, “Sibling” brings the album to a fittingly apocalyptic halt. Minimal, sharp guitar notes punctuate a wall of pulsating synths in a way that might resemble Justin Broadrick remixing a more spacious Godflesh track.
In many ways, A Gaze Among Them is as much a perfect gateway album for drone metal skeptics as it is a triumphant celebration of the genre tailor-made for longtime fans. With a youthful, inventive spirit and masterful understanding of their craft, BIG|BRAVE are easily the most exciting band to enter the drone arena in quite some time. Even with new albums from Earth and Sunn dropping this year, there’s little debate in my mind that A Gaze Among Them is drone metal’s strongest offering of the year.
A Gaze Among Them is available May 10 via Southern Lord.