In this installment of our audio IRL, managing editor Terrence O'Brien sings... er, types the praises of a band and a genre that isn't for everyone. Senior news editor Billy Steele gets nostalgic for his glory days as one of his favorite bands is back together.
Terrence O'Brien Managing Editor
Big|Brave traffic in a particular type of metal. A type of metal that is often divisive. It's not a specific subgenre so much as a style of songwriting and playing. They play loud, texturally maximalist metal. But with slow, minimalist arrangements. They're similar to labelmates Sleep and Sunn O))) in this way, but the three bands don't actually sound that much alike.
Big|Brave's latest album A Gaze Among Them starts with just a plodding and simple drumbeat. It's the sort of beat that suggests someone accidentally set the recording to play back at half speed. The guitar and synth bass that come in shortly only reinforce that feeling that the song is trying to escape some sort of aural quicksand. It locks into a two-chord lumbering groove and basically doesn't budge for over four minutes -- until just about halfway through the opening track "Muted Shifting of Space."
That's not to say there is no sense of movement throughout the 39-minute, five-song LP. Just that it all unfolds in slow motion as singer and guitarist Robin Wattie wails, pleads and pours her heart out. Wattie isn't aping the usual metal tropes for melodrama, though. There's no petulant NuMetal angst, shock rock gore or directionless rage here. Instead A Gaze forces the listener to confront the world from the perspective of a woman. It's an album about power dynamics. It's about being objectified. It's about being a target. It's also about being patronized. She specifically calls out those who make being an ally to women and other marginalized groups a point of pride rather than just normal human decency on "Holding Pattern" ("You take up the air, you make this about you").
Wattie's vocals are the clear focal point of the album. Her voice is every bit as powerful as the wall of guitars and avalanche of drums backing her up. But like the rest of the band, she's never flashy. She doesn't need reach for predictable histrionics to convey the emotion of her songs. There's an intimacy to her vocals both at its strained lows and shouted highs that feels less like a performance and more like someone desperately trying to make you understand their point of view.
Those highs don't come quite as often as you'd expect, but that makes them feel all the more important when they do. While "Muted Shifting of Space" spends a significant chunk of its 8:41 runtime at what amounts to full throttle for Big|Brave, "Body Individual" stretches out its ascent and makes only a fleeting visit to its sonic crest. And album closer "Sibling" is seven minutes of being relentlessly beaten down with no clear peak.
But honestly that's part of what makes A Gaze Among Them so enthralling. It's both hypnotic in its repetition and completely unpredictable. When you think things are building to an obvious crescendo, the band quickly retreats to a noisy, midtempo Krautrock groove. Just when you think things can't get any heavier, the drums find some new gear. And just as you've settled into the vaguely religious intonations of Wattie's singing, she erupts into a gorgeous drawn-out melody that makes the crushing drone of the band go down surprisingly smooth.
Big|Brave made some waves with their previous album, Ardor (which is also excellent), but A Gaze Among Them is the band's most complete statement yet. It seamlessly blends their more experimental influences with the high-brow heaviness that label Southern Lord is known for, all while packing a potent inherently (if not overtly) political message. If you've ever wished Sunn O))) was groovier, Sleater Kinney was sludgier or Boris was more political, then this is an album well worth your time.
Billy Steele Senior News Editor
When I headed to college in 2002, I had already begun my transition into screamo, hardcore and metal. I was introduced to Rage Against The Machine, Deftones and Thursday in high school, partially thanks to MTV2. A classmate my first semester of college quickly broadened my horizons to the world of indie music, and the rest, as they say, is history.
One of the bands I clung to immediately was Beloved. A five-piece hardcore band from right down the road in Kernersville, NC (outside Winston-Salem), the group had a pretty unique sound at the time. It was a mix of melodic singing and brutal breakdowns that would eventually become commonplace in "the scene." The band also had three guitars. Not entirely novel, but still far from the norm. I loved the way Beloved seemed to layer guitar parts in their songs to create a texture and depth other bands couldn't. You need three guitar players to do that.
I was introduced to Beloved in late 2002, several months after the band released The Running EP. I was hooked. Though the production quality wasn't great, the EP perfectly captured the raw energy of the band's music. The collection of six tracks starts with a bang with "Kiss It Goodbye," which showcases the band's ability to mix both guitar and vocal melodies on top of more aggressive riffs and screaming. There's plenty of more mellow parts throughout, and then the aggressive "Going Through The Motions," which is pretty much a straight hardcore track that's almost entirely screamed by drummer Joe Musten. It, too, has some breaks so you can catch your breath, but for the most part, it's unrelenting.
A couple years and several hundred shows later, Beloved released its debut on Solid State Records. Failure On was an obvious continuation of what the band had been doing. But this time, with the backing of a decent-sized indie label, the sound was polished, and the production value was pristine. Still, the band's energy was on full display. In fact, I'd argue the first four songs on this album make up the best opening segment of any band at the time. "Failure On My Lips" is the band wide open, with everything they did well on full display. "Only Our Faces Hide" is probably my least favorite of the set, but still solid. Then there's "Rise & Fall" and "Death To Traitors," the latter of which would become by far the band's most popular song. If the refrain of "we were born for battle" doesn't get you going in the middle of a breakdown, check your pulse.
By 2005, it was over. On the outside, it looked like the band was headed toward what I call "blowing up," or becoming massively popular to the point of potentially signing a huge record deal. After releasing Failure On, the band toured relentlessly and that took its toll. As singer Josh Moore would admit on the Tooth & Nail podcast Labeled back in November, there was no new material in the tank for a sophomore full-length. Marriage, life and exhaustion had given the members diverging priorities, and it was time to call it quits.
The band played its final show in Winston-Salem that January. I'll never forget it. These days, it's popular for bands to break up or go on "hiatus" only to get back together a few years later. It's entirely different to be at the last show of a band you know is done -- like really done. Still, the lineup that night was incredible. Classic Case (which Josh had joined by this point), Glass Casket and Underoath opened before a surprise performance by Norma Jean on borrowed instruments. Norma Jean's singer wasn't with them, so Spencer from Underoath filled in. To date, that's still my favorite version of "Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste," but I digress. It was a fitting way to end Beloved's run, and if that was truly the last time I ever heard them, I was satisfied.
Several years later, the rumors began. But it was always one or two members holding out on a reunion, or so the stories went. Then, last year, the vague Instagram posts began. On Black Friday, the band had announced it was back, or at least for the return of Furnace Fest in September. Of course, the band also plans to play a hometown show at some point, but 21-year-old me is ecstatic. Even if the band doesn't write anything new, the ability to see one of my favorite bands 15 years after thinking it was gone forever is going to be amazing. And getting reacquainted with The Running and Failure On has been one surreal nostalgia trip.
I can still remember standing in line to get into Tremont Music Hall in Charlotte, having to pay extra because I wasn't 21 and being constantly surprised there were bands you could talk to at the merch table. Never give up on your favorite band getting back together, because you never know what will happen in a decade or so.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.
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