In conversation with Belgian post-hardcore innovators Brutus.
When you step back and think about the varying styles of music played by the original grunge bands, it’s clear that location can play just as big a role in defining a musical genre as the sound. Imagine thinking of the big four thrash bands without thinking of the Bay Area, or second-wave black metal without thinking of Norway, or grunge without thinking of Seattle, or even NWOBHM without thinking of, well, Britain. Where these scenes shared a locale as well as a sound, today’s music scene has become so vast and densely populated that even amongst small insular scenes it’s become increasingly hard to pinpoint one distinct sound that’s at the forefront of modern metal and rock. We like to look at the history of rock and metal music in terms of eras – the thrash metal of the ‘80s, the punk rock of the ‘70s etc. – but when we look back at this time, there may not be one prevalent style to discuss so much as a shared ethos of creativity and innovation; of morphing established sounds into something entirely new. Indeed, the most memorable artists of the decade so far have largely been those who sound unlike anything that had come before. This trend is a global movement, of course, but it has its hotbeds, and one of the scenes that’s hardest to define by sound alone is in Belgium.
In recent years, we’ve seen music from post-metal/sludge innovators Amenra, the hypnotic riffs of Oldd Wvrms, the colossally heavy funeral doom of Slow, the shoegaze-infused fuzz of Slow Crush and the expansive black metal of Wiegedood emerge from the country, to name just a few. If these bands share anything, it is a desire to be different, and this year, that torch has been carried most prominently by Sargent House signees Brutus. The band’s strain of post-hardcore stands out even in a scene defined by its creativity, with touches of punk, power-pop, metal and post-rock bleeding into the eleven dynamic tracks that comprise latest LP Nest. The album was met with enthusiastic acclaim, kicking off a busy year for the band when it was released back in March.
“Maybe it has to do with the fact that Belgium is such a small country and nobody wants to copy each other’s sound,” guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden tells us when we ask him why Belgium is such a hotbed of creativity. “Everybody is really doing their own thing.”
Brutus are certainly doing their own thing. The trio’s merging of punk and post-rock spawns music that is powerful and yet emotive, capable of both cathartic aggression and subtle poignancy, often simultaneously. This musical freedom, Vanhoegaerden explains, comes from the way in which the band approach writing. “When we started the band we never discussed what style we wanted to play,” he says. “It just felt good to play together. It was really freeing to not think in genres. The melodies were more important. As long as the three of us liked what we were doing, we were happy. To this day when we write there’s still a feeling that anything goes as long as we feel the songs.”
The band’s emotively stirring music relies heavily on meticulously-crafted melodies and vast atmospheric flourishes, the sort that post-rock bands thrive on, which perhaps explains how the band initially operated, given that they started (reluctantly) as an instrumental band. “We just couldn’t find a singer!” Vanhoegaerden tells us. “We convinced Stefanie [Mannaerts, drums/vocals] to start singing during rehearsals to make it easier to write songs. We liked it so much we encouraged her to keep doing it. I’m really happy she kept singing because it works so well with the three of us, a fourth opinion in the band wouldn’t have worked.”
Mannaerts’ impactful croons and belligerent rasps are a driving force in the band’s music, and, as they did on 2017’s Burst, they play a key role on Nest. They are potent when accompanying the driving rhythms of ‘Cemetery’, towering on the big choruses of tracks like ‘Techno’ and ‘Django’ and sorrowful when taking centre stage on the quieter moments of ‘War’ and ‘Sugar Dragon’. The singer drives home the album’s lyrics emphatically, shifting between styles to accentuate the powerful music, which can be assertive, like the exploratory but forceful verses of ‘Cemetery’, or grand, as in the cleansing majesty of ‘Sugar Dragon’.
Often, though, these styles are found together, with Vanhoegaerden’s guitar often seeking loftier atmospheric heights whilst Peter Mulders’ bass, always clear in the mix, keeps things heavy. This gives the album a remarkably cohesive feel despite such a dynamic sound, which is apt given that many of the tracks share an overarching theme. “Nest is about everyone close to us,” Vanhoegaerden explains. “With the release of Burst and the many tours that followed, there was a lot of pressure and disappointment within our families and friendships. While the nest should be a safe place to come home to, for us it was a constant exercise to make it all work and keeping everybody happy. And on the other hand, we kind of created a nest for ourselves on the road, with the three of us and our main companions. Nest is about all of them but also for them. Some kind of ode, maybe.”
The biggest influence on Nest, then, is the people around the three members of Brutus. The band’s families and friends inspire them, especially when they’re away from them whilst touring. “But the three of us and our vibe is also an inspiration to write music,” he adds. “We grew really close when we were writing the record. We feel like this reflects in the songs as well.”
Lyrically, then, the album tells the story of everything that happened to the band between the release of Burst and the recording of Nest. “We never expected we were going to tour so much with Burst,” the guitarist points out. “It had a big influence on our jobs, our families, our friendships and it wasn’t always easy to cope with that, for any of the involved parties.”
Bands have often struggled with the juggling of responsibilities that comes with being in a band, especially one that is touring relentlessly and especially in a world in which being a musician isn’t likely to pay the bills. The hard work paid off, though, as just two weeks after Burst’s release on Hassle Records, Sargent House head honcho Cathy Pellow tweeted about the band. Hassle sent Pellow a copy of the album and within another couple of weeks the band had signed to Sargent House alongside the likes of Chelsea Wolfe, Deafheaven, Earth, Emma Ruth Rundle and Russian Circles. “A dream come true,” is how Vanhoegaerden describes it.
This step up meant that eyes were on Brutus going in to the writing and recording of Nest. Vanhoegaerden tells us that he doesn’t remember there being more pressure from external sources, however, with the driving force being the band members pushing each other to write the best music possible. The result was a more streamlined sound than previous recordings, perhaps a product of the band taking more time to plan the album beforehand. “When we recorded Burst we wanted to make the best possible album we could make at the time,” the guitarist notes. “Nest came from the same place but the difference is that we talked more about what we wanted to say and what everybody in the band wanted to put in the songs.”
“I think for Nest we were more focused,” he continues. ”And we had a better idea about what we wanted when we went into the studio. On Nest we’re really trying to tell a story, on Burst we were just really excited to record an album and I think that comes through in the sound.”
This focused attitude clearly worked, and as a result the band are now set to spend the year completing some of their biggest shows yet, with their first US shows coming up in November and a support slot with Cult Of Luna on their EU tour also approaching. Nest, it seems, has propelled the band to a new level, and the process the band took whilst writing has surely given them the tools they need to progress yet again on a third album, which Vanhoegaerden tells us is definitely on the cards: “There are still so many songs we want to write.”
Nest is out now on Sargent House. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr