[Front cover artwork / photo by Big|Brave]
All glory to Iommi that metal is as chimerical and unconventional as it so very often is, because the last year+ has obviously provided enough harrowing spectacle that our thirst for dragonslayers, space beasts, evil angels and impossibly misshapen sewer freaks may never be fully slaked again. Art is, as one of its principal edicts dictates, a welcome distraction and conveyance away from a grueling reality.
As often as it offers escape, however, art can also carry out the very necessary mission of unmasking, probing and battling frightfully concrete daily sufferings—hardships a great many of us are fortunate enough to sidestep—thereby presenting an opportunity for increasing awareness, sparking enlightenment and, perhaps most importantly, offering encouragement to those who suffer. In the heavy music sphere, the cathartic effect is often immolative, with the severity of the riffs and clobbering rhythms heaving adversities out into the open for incineration and transformation into something more manageable or hopeful.
In a word, Vital is probably best represented as “weighty,” which differs from “heavy” in that it crushes the listener not only with serious heft in sound, but also with its severe subject matter. In the band’s words, the core substance of the record is centered on “exploring the weight of race and gender, endurance and navigating other people’s behaviors, observation and protest,” and it likewise “involves what it means to navigate the outside world in a racialized body, and what it does to the psyche as a whole while exploring individual worth within this reality.” Topics such as this are clearly, um, vital amidst modern times where far too many individuals continue to experience grave discrimination, inequality and unmitigated peril for simply being who the fuck they are on this collaborative planet Earth, and extreme music benefits in numerous ways from having issues such as this underscored by capable bands that care enough to raise thunder about it.
“Of This Ilk” explores the very real pressure people of color too often experience for any number of reasons to bleach their skin lighter, and everything about the song (and video) conveys the grim severity of that consequence. The band’s characteristic method of pummel / yield / pummel / yield / repeat in such an echoed structure in the front half of the song gives the overall atmosphere an industrial tone that’s not too far removed from the heavier side of Godflesh—the twin guitars, shared between founding members Robin Wattie and Mathieu Ball, are dense enough to blow diesel exhaust, and drummer Tasy Hudson pelts the periphery with a giant’s swagger. It’s near impossible to deny the bombarding weight of what’s going down here, particularly when experienced through quality headphones, and attaching lyrics such as this to the thumping makes the results all the more devastating:
The strength of… The pull of
What it means to move with such ease
Through pillars so white, so clean
I… Want… To be… You…
Everything drops into a leveling moment of total silence at the song’s midpoint, and then clattering guitars, feedback and relentless pummeling usher in bleak visuals of skin being helplessly grated under an unfocussed eye before a second reprieve ultimately brings the piece to a tranquil, albeit unsettling, close. The superb production here heightens the overall effect, as it does throughout Vital, and a substantial tip of the hat is due Seth Manchester and Machines with Magnets studio for once again achieving the vital role of “fourth band member lurking in the shadows.”
As often as Big|Brave’s music is very direct in its delivery, whether it be through extended passages of steady drubbing, or, in the case of “Wited, Still and All…,” a more ambient directive, it is Wattie’s unique vocal delivery that flecks the blueprint with a welcomed bit of kaleidoscopic pizzazz. You don’t have to look very far to see stacks of writers comparing her approach to Björk’s, and while that for whatever reason seems a bit too easy, the pair absolutely do share a unique capacity for balancing a distinctive form of elegance with sudden bursts of anarchy that make it clear that backing either into a corner would be a notably unwise decision. A voice as malleable as this is essential for exploring the full gamut of heavy emotions conveyed throughout Vital, and every song here is strengthened as a result of Wattie’s adventurousness. The loudest vocal impact, however, occurs on “Half Breed,” a song that’s as jarring as its title, and one that’s inspired by real-world experiences and lyrics pulled directly from a relevant essay penned by Korean-American author Alexander Chee, from his book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel:
Clearly, Big|Brave’s brand of sludgy, thrumming, noisy music is largely intended for a unique niche of heavy music enthusiasts, but it’s wonderful that a band like this exists for anyone to assimilate because not only do they challenge the boundaries of several genres, which is exciting, they shine a light on a number of relevant and critical issues that desperately call for more universal attention and digestion. In the end, it’s great if your overall goal for music / art consumption focuses primarily on entertainment and escape, but hails are undoubtedly due the artists that find creative ways to encourage us to reflect and progress. Vital is precisely the sort of record that does exactly that.
Become crushed by the weight, and be better for it.