Album Of The Week: Brutus Nest

The “about” line you’ll find on Brutus’ social channels serves as an apt manifestation of the Belgian post-metal band’s art: minimalist, mysterious, and menacing. It reads:

“Trouble comes in threes. So does Brutus.”

While evocative, the tagline does not provide much in the way of background, clarity, or definition. Even so, it’s probably a better jumping-off point than whatever rote bit of bio I might offer by way of a beginning, so let’s take what they’ve given us and fill in the blanks, starting by breaking the phrase into its component parts:

“Trouble comes in threes.”

This is a reference to the Rule Of Three: an ancient principle that applies (or can be applied) to basically every element of human history, from the Egyptian pyramids and Aristotelian philosophy to marketing techniques and molecular physics. The Rule Of Three is so prevalent in communication that it’s often invisible, which only underscores its effectiveness. It is supposedly captured in the Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” (or “everything that comes in threes is perfect”). So far, so good? Good. So:

“So does Brutus.”

This would appear to be a reference to Brutus’ personnel configuration, the most obvious way in which the band “comes in threes.” Brutus are a power trio, i.e., a three-person lineup built around guitar, bass, and drums, in which every player is required to do the heavy lifting. In Brutus’ case, the work is split between drummer/singer Stefanie Mannaerts, bassist Peter Mulders, and guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden. The archetypal power trio is Cream — Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker — who introduced the template in 1966, and whose protean dynamic was described beautifully by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who wrote of seeing the band for the first time:

The curtain drew back and the three of them started playing “Crossroads.” I had never seen or heard anything like it before. I was simply staggered by the amount of equipment they had: by Ginger Baker’s double bass drum, by Jack Bruce’s two 4-by-12 Marshall amps, and by all of Eric Clapton’s gear. It was an astounding sight and an explosive sound … I remember Ginger Baker was insane back then, and I’m sure he still is. He hit the drums harder than anyone I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Keith Moon. And Ginger hit them in a rhythmic style all his own that was extraordinary. Eric Clapton we don’t have to talk about — it’s obvious how amazing he is. Then there’s Jack Bruce — probably the most musically gifted bass player who’s ever been.

The Rule Of Three comes up a lot in music theory, of course, but in rock music, at least, it is perhaps best embodied by the power trio. To explain why this is would necessitate an entirely new and separate article. Rather than write that article myself, though, I’ll direct you to this one: “12 Reasons Why Power Trios Rule,” authored by Tom Moon for Music Aficionado. Writes Moon:

The power trio — from its origins in the blues and Cream through its punk derivations — has something profound to teach about spontaneity and its role in the creative process. About how the most elemental skeletal forces can be the most impactful. And on and on. If there could ever be a blueprint for the renewal and revitalization of rock, it is contained within the works of the great power trios.

I’ve written a lot about Brutus over the past couple months. I got a copy of the band’s sophomore LP, Nest, at the end of 2018, and the thing has spent every day of 2019 as my favorite album of the young year. For instance, about first lead single “War,” I wrote:

Brutus’ new LP, Nest, opens with a song called — for real — “Fire.” Nest’s album-announcing advance single is called “War.” Now, if you’re gonna lead with shit like that? If that is how you are introducing yourself to the world? Man, you better be 100% ready to back it. To bring it. You cannot be fucking around. The first words out of Stefanie Mannaerts’ mouth on “War” are “Our world/ It’s gone.” She sings the line with enough focus and force to shatter glaciers, asserting in no uncertain terms: Brutus are not fucking around.

About the “War” video, I said this:

Drummers are often the most dynamic visual component of any given rock band, but they’re almost never the focal point … They’re set up at the back of the stage and seated low, in the shadow of those musicians whose roles allow them more mobility and thus greater visibility. This is primarily why percussionists are rarely the rock band’s frontperson. Secondarily: It’s hard as hell to play drums while also singing.

Enter Brutus: a Belgian power trio comprising drummer/singer Stefanie Mannaerts, guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden, and bassist Peter Mulders. Brutus’ music requires no visual accompaniment or degree-of-difficulty qualifications to flat-out fucking rule. They play massive, cinematic, cathartic, absolutely breathtaking post-metal. Their songs are taut, exhilarating, expansive, and enthralling — huge Godspeed guitars with even-huger Baroness choruses. But better than that. And bigger. Brutus’ debut album, Burst, came out in 2017, behind which they toured with the likes of Russian Circles, Chelsea Wolfe, and Thrice. Their sophomore LP, Nest, is out in March, and the thing is a revelation. It’s outrageously early, I know, but just the same: I’ll be pretty shocked if Nest doesn’t end the year as one of its true highlights. It’s far and away my favorite 2019 LP so far.

Then when we got to single #2, “Cemetery,” I wrote this:

Throughout “Cemetery,” as all of Nest, Mannaerts’ vocal performance is the element that elevates the music from merely outstanding to highest-echelon elite. Her most obvious forebear, to my ear, is Björk, but Björk never made music half as heavy as this. Corin Tucker? Maybe. But Sleater-Kinney were based in punk, not metal, and as such, were never so boldly cinematic as Brutus.

These are obviously imperfect comparisons, but more to the point, they’re unfair. Björk and Corin Tucker are icons, and they earned their status as such over decades, whereas Brutus are on the eve of their second LP and almost nobody on the planet has ever even heard the first one … Brutus are basically rookies. Stefanie Mannaerts cannot be expected to stand alongside legends. And yet? She does. She belongs in no lesser league. The evidence speaks for itself. She’s earning it RIGHT NOW.

And now, here we are! Nest is out this week and it’s still my favorite album of 2019. Since I’ve discussed the album a bunch already on my own terms, using my own metrics, I’m going to use this space to discuss it in the terms set forth by Moon in “12 Reasons Why Power Trios Rule.” Each of the list items below is pulled from his piece, followed by a Brutus-specific response from me.

1. The Trio Encourages Improvisation/Interaction

My introduction to Brutus came via the “War” video, and I literally cannot imagine a better or even comparably effective first impression of the band. It is intense watching Mannaerts play drums and sing, but equally intense watching Mulders and Vanhoegaerden play alongside her. It’s truly hypnotic and breathtaking, but my favorite part, I think, is when the camera pans to Mulders (around the 3:10 point) who cannot stop himself from grinning as he watches Mannaerts. It’s really beautiful.

2. The Trio Depends On Individual Prowess, Harnessed In Service Of A Collective Personality

It’s crazy, really, to think about the players who came out of power trios: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, Les Claypool, J Mascis, Marissa Paternoster … All these people have been called “God” at one point or another in their careers — all of them represent the very best at their respective stations — yet all of them excelled especially because they were parts of units in which the supporting casts were equally powerful. The same is true of Brutus. Mannaerts is God, obviously. But Mulders and Vanhoegaerden play at equally virtuosic levels, neither overshadowing Mannaerts nor holding her back.

3. Trios Shift Direction, Time Signatures, Etc. With Dexterity

This is Brutus’ collective strong suit, and if you need proof, listen to literally any song on Nest. If you need proof right here and now, listen to “Cemetery,” and pay attention to the shift that occurs just after the three-minute mark (and everything that follows):

4. The Smallest Musical Details Matter In A Trio Setting

In power trios, traditionally, vocals are handled by the guitarist (the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Jam, Nirvana, Green Day, Screaming Females), if not the bassist (Rush, the Police, Motörhead, Primus), or sometimes, some combination of the two people playing string instruments (Minutemen, Dinosaur Jr., Sleater-Kinney, Blink-182). Rarely, however, is the trio’s drummer tasked with any vocal duties, much less relied upon to deliver lead vocals on every single song. This is because it is outrageously difficult to play drums and sing at the same time. (This is why the best drummer in the world plays guitar when fronting his own band.) As Moon writes, “There is nowhere to hide playing trio.” Think about that when you listen to Nest, when you hear this woman roaring and blasting with nothing less than absolute command, absolute confidence. The smallest musical details matter. There is nowhere to hide.

5. The Trio Represents A Continuum

As I was saying above, this doesn’t work unless Mulders and Vanhoegaerden are constantly pushing these songs higher and harder. But they are. As a result, the songs on Nest feel like they’re always building to infinity, forever circling the sun. The performances are in perfect balance with one another, each component working to support its counterparts, and all of them propelling forward and lifting higher the whole.

6. The Trio Encourages Bold Lunges For The Fences

This is best exemplified by experiencing Nest in its titanic totality, but each of the album’s component parts is no less of a bold lunge. I mean literally every goddamn song, man. Jesus.

7. The Trio Is Built For Speed

Not literal speed, necessarily, not in every instance — Yo La Tengo and Low aren’t exactly burners, for example — but the spartan nature of the power trio allows for a fleetness that can’t be achieved by larger units. This is true in Brutus’ case, too: The band’s writing is tight and disciplined in ways rarely encountered in this style of music. Furthermore, though, there is plenty of literal speed, too. In Nest track “Horde V,” Mannaerts is smashing at Deafheaven velocity. It’s amazing.

8. The Trio Encourages Different Approaches To Texture

Nest was recorded in Vancouver’s Rain City studio with Jesse Gander, whose résumé includes stuff like White Lung and Japandroids. Those bands make amazing-sounding music, of course, but the textures explored by Brutus are on an entirely different level. I’m gonna quote Moon here directly, from his list, in which this particular line item was dedicated to Motörhead: “Metal is often about density — that thick mass of angry guitar, the epic thud of a heavily processed kick drum. Motörhead managed to generate that roar with the minimum of musicians … The music is plenty thick when it needs to be. But it’s also defined by a sharp rhythmic agility [and] a less sludgy, surprisingly airborne approach to metal, maximizing the scrape and the coarseness of the guitar to create a sound you feel as much as hear.” Brutus’ coarseness is primarily found in Mannaerts’ voice rather than Vanhoegaerden’s soaring guitars, but otherwise, that description applies exactly to Brutus, too. Nest’s sound is both pristine and encompassing, heavy as a 747 and still somehow able to defy gravity.

9. The Trio Gets At The Essence Of Groove

The idea here is that, in a power trio, “everyone is involved in playing rhythm, and everyone agrees on the pulse and its possibilities; as a result, the rhythm is expressed at a high level.” Brutus’ music is a huge fucking heartbeat, throbbing and pulsing even when it is near stillness, and absolutely hammering when the band is playing at top velocity.

10. The Trio Facilitates Original Ways To Frame Melodies

This is especially true in Brutus’ case. In most contemporary metal, the melody (to the extent melody can be found) is provided by the guitars, while the vocals act as more of a rhythm instrument. This is true even in melodic death metal. In most post-metal power trios, there are no vocals whatsoever (Russian Circles, Earthless, Sannhet). In Brutus, however, the vocals drive the melodies. Mannaerts’ instrument is one of the most powerful I’ve ever encountered, and her melodies are incredibly unique, in large part because they are built around her drumming (or vice-versa), so that both elements are serving the songs.

11. The Trio Can Suggest Grace, Poise, Subtlety

Brutus’ handle doesn’t necessarily indicate “grace, poise, subtlety,” admittedly. It’s borrowed from the name of Julius Caesar’s assassin, from which derives the medieval Latin root brutalis (“dull, stupid”). Yet Brutus’ music is every bit as delicate and dextrous as it is punishing and violent — and it is plenty punishing and violent.

12. The Trio Encourages Musical Journeys

Really, there’s no better way to put it. Nest is a remarkable adventure, an exploration of territories never before traversed, very much in the spirit of fellow power-trio travelers like Rush and Sleep. Even if it were nothing more than the sum of its parts, Nest would be an astonishing album; the performances alone would be enough to guarantee that. But it is so much bigger, better, and more. Omne trium perfectum. Quod erat demonstrandum. Veni Vidi Vici. Brutus come in threes. Nest comes out in three days. And it fucking rules.

Nest is out 3/29 on Sargent House. Pre-order it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Billie Eillish’s guaranteed-to-be-huge debut LP, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

• Steve Earle And The Dukes’ tribute to Guy Clark, GUY

• Mekons’ roots-punk return, Deserted

• Whitechapel’s death-grooving The Valley

• Lion Babe’s breezy Cosmic Wind

• Mdou Moctar’s blistering and gritty Ilana (The Creator)

• Laura Stevenson’s emotionally alluring The Big Freeze

• Show Me The Body’s explosive Dog Whistle

• American Pleasure Club’s long-delayed fucking bliss

• UNKLE’s second part of a planned trilogy, The Road: Part II / Lost Highway

• The self-titled album from Arctic Monkeys side project Good Cop Bad Cop

• billy woods & Kenny Segal’s first collaborative album, Hiding Places

• Quelle Chris’ thoughtful, inventive Guns

• Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra’s unlikely pairing, Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs)

Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt’s Sing To Me Instead

• Ty Segall’s live album, Deforming Lobes

• White Denim’s fuzz-rocking Side Effects

• Marvin Gaye’s lost album, You’re The Man

• Mess’ debut LP, Learning How To Talk

• FACS’ claustrophobic noise-rocker Lifelike

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