Loudness is a crutch. “Maximum volume yields maximum results” is a fine bit of sloganeering, but as a guiding principle for music, its pithiness belies its hollowness. Of course, the act of listening necessarily requires the medium of the listener, so each of us hears things – even hears the same thing – through the attenuating mechanisms of our own ears, brains, and memories. To tell me how to listen to something as if that guides my experience of hearing is a little like telling someone where to stand in a particular gallery of an art museum as if that guides their seeing. Hardly puts the ‘point’ in pointillism. Or the ‘imp’ in impressionism. Or the ‘is’ in cubism. Whatever.
The only real function of loudness, I wager, is that it has a way of monopolizing one’s attention. So yes, play any type of music loudly enough, and you’ll have the (potentially dubious) benefit of being unable to ignore it. But does loudness truly have any additive properties beyond this? Can loudness transform sound rather than amplifying it? A veritable cottage industry of yawn-inducing sludge and post-metal bands has sprung up over the last decade and a half or so as if to distill perfectly the notion that loudness is substantively meaningless; all turned up, but nowhere to go. The Montreal heavy art-rock collective Big Brave’s fourth album A Gaze Among Them, however, just about makes a complete and utter mockery of this little bit of shabby theorizing.
Big Brave occasionally comes across a little like Messa or Sinistro because of the way Robin Wattie’s extremely potent and idiosyncratic vocals work both with and against the music, but Big Brave arrives at a proximate destination by a very different route. There’s quite a lot more noise rock influence (think Shellac or Unsane on tranquilizers), but Wattie’s raw vocal tinge means you might hear this as a time-stretched version of riot grrrl like Bikini Kill. The almost grudging embrace of melody against seemingly disaffected and world-weary trudging means you might hear this as nearly a grunge album. Wattie’s and Mathieu Ball’s guitars trade texture and rhythm almost interchangeably, so that at any moment you’re equally likely to move your body as to sink your head deep in a pool of fuzzed and refracted tone.
More important, though, is the way in which Big Brave uses volume to change the experience of their sound, not just to yell it more clearly into your ears. The halfway mark of the album’s opening track sports a particularly potent downbeat from drummer Loel Campbell that illustrates the potentially multiplicative effect of volume when wielded by expert hands. The song reaches not so much a climax as a newly elevated plateau, with the blown-out guitar tones blitzing the frequency spectrum so harshly that they prepare the way for one of the most effectively repetitive vocal passages of the album.
Wattie’s vocals are somewhere in the realm of Julie Christmas or Genevieve from Menace Ruine, though in Big Brave, the vocal lines are much more direct and penetrating – clear anchor notes hit cleanly and directly and then hammered home with a grim determination (see, for example, the repeated and incantatory refrain of “body and blood” in “Holding Pattern”). “Body Individual” spends its first several minutes in moody scene-setting, with the vocals a chasm-spanning holler above dark roiling waters far and almost silent beneath. Some of the most tumultuous tones in the song seem to come from the amplified, bowed, and manipulated sound of guest (and Godspeed You! Black Emperor member) Thierry Amar’s contrabass, which adds to the chamber/post-rock feeling. When the song finally erupts into a full-fledged doom riff just before the 6-minute mark, you really may find that volume has an interactive effect. Rather than simply pulling the song into a louder realm, an appropriate helping of volume at this point turns the riff into equal parts rhythm and texture – both aspects of which are simple enough on their face, but at a low volume, each cannot reinforce the other.
The new album from Sunn O))), released just prior to Big Brave, will likely remain the focal point for those in the heavy music community with a particular passion for tone worship. Big Brave plows a bit of the same field, even as its songwriting wanders far afield from pure drone. Their churning, frequently modal riffs often sound as if sculpted from feedback and overlapping waves of amplifier hum. Check out the midsection of “Holding Pattern,” where a drum-led crescendo opens up into a carefully tended garden of electrified string vibration – a fuzzed-out mattress of pure sound almost separate from the aims of the composition itself.
A Gaze Among Them is a big, sprawling, brute-force record that does at least two surprising things: it exudes a sense of vulnerability, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The surging, overloading, almost industrial two-step tone on the opening of album closer “Sibling” recalls a more organic Author & Punisher. On this note, the album ends not with some great crashing crescendo, but a loud, throbbing, insistent, but ultimately plaintive crumbling. This is not an album that uses volume and cheap songwriting clichés to make you think you have felt things more deeply than you have. This is an album that shows you its raw heart but makes few demands. There’s little expectation or exchange. Its weight falls with hammer-blow force even when played quietly. That’s no crutch.