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Minimalist Maximalism: Big|Brave’s “A Gaze Among Them”

a gaze among them

Without too much Googling, you can find out the thematic touchstones of Big|Brave’s newest record. While the previous albums weren’t particularly (or at least overtly) politically inclined, A Gaze Among Them frames itself specifically in the realm of non-male bodies in patriarchal space, the titular gaze itself being the male gaze, which alienates and objectifies the non-male bodies it sees in its vicinity. The record follows the elaboration of these experiences from a non-male, non-white perspective, using heavy experimental drone as a soundtrack to those emotions that arise from the alienation of self from body and selfhood from space.

And yet, Big|Brave is remarkably mature with their implementation of these good and necessary political gestures in the music. The emotional timbre of the music, for instance, is not predicated on knowing the real raw experiential roots of it; the first few times I put the record on, to briefly elaborate in the first-person, I was a weepy and meditative mess by the end of the album, and I hadn’t a clue at that time what the lyrics were let alone the thematic center of the record. This is not to say that the thematics and experiences the group drew from for A Gaze Among Them are unimportant by any means, but instead to say that they evoke them sonically just as much as they elaborate on them lyrically, encoding the intended emotional effect of these experiences in the pure sonics just as much as in the words.

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This is no small feat when discussing drone music. As much as any reader here will likely have a list of drone, drone-doom, post-metal, and other minimalist music that has spoken to them, it is a field that is easier to do wrong than to do right. The reason why most groups choose to fill up the same amount of sonic space as a drone record with substantially more notes and chordal movement is because it is ultimately easier to generate interest the more notes you play, giving yourself more chances to catch the listener and convey the intended meaning. Big|Brave are wise with their drones, choosing not to leave them unadorned but instead merely harmonically unmoving, replacing the motion of chord sequences with a variety of color tones, timbres, and sonic effects. It is the equivalent of setting one massive pedal tone over which the rest of the song elaborates via sung melodic lines and rhythmic touches that feel often closer to free improvisation than traditional songcraft.

A Gaze Among Them affects not like drone, instead sounding closer to a hybrid of post-metal and shoegaze, albeit not of the hybrid style this pairing likely brings to mind. Big|Brave sit best with a group like Sumac, who likewise produce massive drone soundscapes that seem to draw from doom, post-metal, and other styles without necessarily comfortably sitting within them. In a world devoid of other bands, perhaps Big|Brave could be called a shoegazing drone doom band, or a post-metal group, but those terms would relate them to groups that don’t feel wholly similar. They are instead post-metal in the very literal sense, taking metallic concepts and appending them to forms closer to Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s early ambient excursions, or a rock arrangement of Tangerine Dream at their most drone-oriented. They give the same level of attention to the sonic dappling their distortion walls lend to the drones as a group like Sunn O))), learning well the lesson of that ultimate heavy drone band that it’s often not just the notes you play or the effects you use but the specific tiny fluctuations that determine whether a take has that emotional spark or not.

And it is that focus on the emotional spark that makes A Gaze Among Them so tremendously successful. The experiential is a route to the emotional, and by conveying that inward emotional spark it in turn makes the experiential legible; it is hard to imagine someone listening to this music and not having a greater inward emotional understanding of non-male, non-white experiences in spaces colonized by maleness and whiteness. The combination of yearning and heartbreak, of hyperfixation on the body to the point of alienation, of the meditative inward calm of the undissolvable Self that resides within and bears these experiences… this all feels palpable within these songs.

With the first few listens, I found myself juddering with tears without a clear understanding of why — the music seemed to turn my eye inside, living within my nerves and marrow, gazing backward into time and downward into my body. The precise roots this deep emotional effect came later; what mattered right then and there was that is was all there in the music. The best lyrical music can still convey its thought if the listener doesn’t know the language, and Big|Brave have crafted a record that can cross that divide as comfortable as Serge Gainsbourg, Sigur Ros, and early Enslaved.

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A comparison can be made to a record like Lantlos’s Melting Sun or Oathbreaker’s Rheia in terms of being a record that must be described as heavy but does not necessarily align itself with heavy metal, drawing as comfortably from avant-garde and punk spaces and sparing notions of orchestral arrangement and programmatic intent to larger compositions. Also like those records, the heart of A Gaze Among Them is not the tantalizing and rich set of musical ideas Big|Brave play with and permutate to create their compositions and performances, but rather it has to do with clear and legible emotional intention. It would be fascinating to learn some day whether this record had tons of scraps, material that didn’t quite nail the emotional timbre of the rest of the songs or contribute to the clear emotional arc of the perfectly paced and constructed record, or if instead it was the only material produced. The answer to that question would illuminate whether the process is fully intuitive and immediate for the group or whether they simply have the ears and the conceptual ethic to carve out extraneous ideas.

These songs are often expansive, but unlike the Sunn O))) record Life Metal (which I also reviewed), whose gargantuan tracks passed in what felt like the blink of an eye, Big|Brave’s songs swim out. It is almost as though the ear picks them up as portals opening up into meditative inward space divorced from time. But despite the floating sense of timelessness of the pieces, Big|Brave doesn’t feel like they drag or are without animation; instead, their songs read like guided meditations.

What matters is less even the pure song itself and more the internal space it places you, driving the listener less with the immediacy of the holy sound of distorted guitars and more with the tense and fracturing breath of the inward eye.

A Gaze Among Them released today via Southern Lord. Stream the entire album below:

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