Ardor, the third full-length by Montrealers BIG|BRAVE opens with a sustained, unending riff. As it reverberates eerily, it suggests that the trio picked up right where they left off with their sophomore release Au De La, veering even further into fields of textures and sparse instrumentation. Their signature sound is a combination of elements from multiple genres and idioms, from post-rock to drone, shaped into an experimental, caustic, and often hermetic concoction. But as that deceivingly eternal riff’s life abruptly ends, the void it leaves behind is filled with a massive groove. Full of immensely heavy guitars and striking yet bulbous drums, it starts and stops, starts and stops… while Robin Wattie’s vocals pierce its veil. And just like that, BIG|BRAVE explore another fork in their sound.
Even if palpably different, Ardor’s heritage from Au De La and Feral Verdure is obvious. The concentrated heaviness and gravitas that were represented only through certain segments on those albums, are expanded and worshipped here. Ardor is carried by three lengthy songs – all of them over ten minutes long – that are impressively focused and flow with stable, increasingly overpowering and oppressive inner rhythms. “Sound,” the introductory cut, maintains its initial stop-motion trudge, full-bodied sonic impact, and textural complexity throughout, as a shrieking, distorted violin (courtesy of Jessica Moss from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra) and Wattie’s vocals dance defiantly, unburdened and unbound. The track’s inherent tension never explodes and, instead, fizzles out into an equally rewarding, Sunn O))) inspired, drumless roar and drone. It’s a fascinating tune, one rich in textures, rhythm – propelled by Louis-Alexandre Beauregard nimble but wrecking drumming – and lusciously discordant riffs.
“Lull” is both a logical continuation of “Sound” and a striking divergence. It buzzes and drones into being, only for Wattie to unfold her powerful, cynical, and, at times, enraged voice over the aggressive background. Her delivery is nuanced and felt, almost thespian as it cuts and soars, occasionally joined by a comparatively subdued Beauregard. This is music meant for some devilish, smoke-laden night club in David Lynch’s world. A bluesy piece that evokes the seeping darkness of Bohren & der Club of Gore’s doom jazz. This punishing atmosphere breaks down in the cut’s final part, as the violin takes the lead and transgresses into or slowly builds up to a progressively intense chasm. The final transition, into “Borer,” is abrupt yet essential as it brings another slight twist in style. What starts with solitary thuds and wobbly riffs soon bursts into a doom-drone march. Here BIG|BRAVE show just what kind of a grand, dynamic sound they kept restrained, and release it into a heavenly crushing spiral.
“I am immune and I am protected,” Wattie repeatedly groans while traversing the piece’s mellow marrow part, trying to convince herself or us of her words while imbuing “Borer” with Current 93 overtones and derangement. During the song’s and album’s closing minutes, Wattie’s voice disappears as the counterpoint of riffs and sparse drums continues to grind and destroy until it brings everything to a stop. For this form of music to function well, the sound had to be compact, revealing of all the layers and interplay while simultaneously fuzzy, dusky, and disorienting. And that’s exactly what Jerusalem in My Heart’s Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, who recorded and mixed the record, delivers. With two guitars, drums, and a violin, BIG|BRAVE manage to create an imposing sound that pulls the listener in like the universe’s most beautiful black hole. And at its center lay Wattie’s vocals, emphatic and unique, only superficially similar to Julie Christmas, Kathleen Hanna, Björk, or Jarboe.
As a whole, Ardor is one of the most haunting and elegant, frightening and calming pieces of art I’ve encountered this year. In the end, there are no words that can properly capture its expansiveness, wild beauty, and enduring emotional impact. So go and listen.