Review: Big|Brave – “Vital”

There are things that rock bands, even the unconventional ones, can get away with in a live setting ― one with a living, breathing audience — that they simply cannot seem to pull off on a traditional studio recording. Enter the Montreal ensemble Big|Brave. The trio typically plays a kind of minimalist and ambiance-heavy post-metal where the real focus zeroes in on the space between notes. It’s an interesting approach — these guys never resort to tricks like the cheapened post-metal crescendo. (Thank you for that.) The approach has also won them fans and followers and devotees such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Efrim Menuck, who recorded the group’s second LP and invited them to open live shows for GY!BE and Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. But, on Vital, the trio’s fifth LP, the conceit wears very thin at the edges and the seams and, yeah, to be honest, practically everywhere. Sadly, listeners not willing to give themselves over to the long-winded mode of presentation here will end up focusing on the drone-inducing repetition without soaking in the heat it was meant to generate. And that’s a shame.

It should be noted that frontwoman Robin Wattie pulls off some spectacular stunts and paints with interesting colors on parts of Vital, really letting go with guttural wails amid the 4/4 plodding on album-opener, “Abating the Incarnation of Matter.” (Her voice, occasionally breaking or wavering, sometimes injects some of the only human emotion into the gray machinery of the LP.) But even that play gets a bit tired by the time you’ve reached the fifth and final song on the Southern Lord LP. The band is so fixated on crafting and recrafting sparse explosions of sound — often placing little between descents where guitar, bass and drums come slamming down together at the same time, BOOM, pause, pause, BOOM ― that it almost loses the sense of what it’s doing in the first place. Live, yes, especially with this form of propulsive volume, the approach might catch a lot of ears in a room and border on a kind of collective or transcendent hypnotism. On the LP, not so much. Even the closing song, a last-ditch attempt to stray from the script, doesn’t bring anything home. We’re sure there’s people out there who will listen to Vital and be entranced, maybe even for “good reason;” but, to that, we say, “too little, too late.”

Most of the songs on Vital sound like carbon-copies of each other ― and not in a good way. There are moments on “Half Breed,” released as a primer or single of sorts, where the band pays attention to the connective tissue between big hits ― this is true. And the closing track, the title piece, seems to stray a bit from the tired formulas established throughout. But, for the most part, the collapsing cacophony of notes on “Half Breed” are somewhat indistinguishable or interchangeable from “Of This Ilk,” or even “Abating,” one of the record’s better tracks. The fact that four of the five tracks break the seven-minute mark only indicates how committed you need to be to the pound-droning to get in on the loop.

Unlike previous outings, where the group’s chemistry and sense of chance or random trajectory lent it a bit of unanticipated excitement, on Vital everything’s a bit too plotted and a bit too staid. The result is a record that will seem like a chore to sit through; we’ve listened to the thing 10 times through to try to sort the wheat from the chaff, as they say. Verdict? There’s a lot of chaff to go around. Vital, sadly, is anything but. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, May 3, 2021

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About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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