This piece was initially printed in the sixth issue of our print magazine, released in 2020.
2020 has left us fractured – as a music scene, as a species and as a community. Alongside civil unrest and tumultuous election campaigns we have been kept apart by Covid, forced into isolation and cut off from family, friends and the chance to have new experiences. If there’s one thing we need to maintain moving into 2021 and hopefully beyond this pandemic, it’s a sense of togetherness, of coming together to fight for a better future. It would be heavy-handed to assert that a single album has the ability to do this, but the new album from Canada’s Respire certainly represents an emphasis on diversity, inclusion and community that’s very much needed right now.
Black Line is a beast of a record, somehow more powerful and expansive than the band’s previous two albums, 2016’s Gravity And Grace and 2018’s Dénouement, but simultaneously sounding like the culmination of an epic trilogy. It is a vast, orchestral record that’s almost overwhelming in its scope. From the intimacy of the poignant strings to the limitless intensity of the tidal-wave crescendos, this is an album that’s never anything less than enthralling. Fans of Svalbard will find lots to love in the ingenious merging of post-rock grandeur and blackened hardcore fervour, whilst those with a penchant for blackgaze à la Deafheaven will likely appreciate the band’s proclivity for dreamy atmospherics.
“When we began writing the lyrics for Black Line, forests were going up in flames all over North America. Australia was being ravaged by historic bushfires. Yet even with a climate catastrophe closer to home than ever before, our leaders continue with a reactionary populist demagoguery meant to sow fear and division, all for a desire to go back to some imaginary place of homogenous security,” the band tell us when we get in touch over email. “As immigrants we have an acute understanding of loss, of how easily the things we are grown to rely on can be taken away from us. We wanted to use our history as a parallel, a point of reference for the future losses to come. We all stand on the brink of suffering.”
The state of the world in 2020 is the source of so much frustration, fear and anxiety. Black Line feels like a cathartic cry of release from this desperation, but there’s also hope in its dramatic expulsion of turmoil. It is a representation of the band members’ inner desperation, sure, but it strikes a chord so fiercely because it is a desperation that so many of us feel right now. In this sense, despite the punishing brutality of the visceral riffs and infernal shrieks, this is a record that feels comforting. It feels like the band are screaming with you (think of that Midsommar scene – you know the one), rather than at you.
The band’s music has always seemed personal. If Dénouement was a reflection on trauma, addiction and guilt, then Black Line is a response to the world around them after the anxiety of living in 2020 quickly overshadowed any sense of peace the band had found in that album’s wake. “The personal has never been more political as it is in 2020. The horrors we see all around have infected every state of the self. Dénouement was about standing at a turning point, of wanting something more than a cycle of self-abuse and self-abasement we grow accustomed to through substance addiction. Whatever peace sobriety has found has been overshadowed, bulldozed over by a state of constant panic and fear that is living in these times. Black Line is about the attempt of recovery in an un-recovering timeline, the reckoning that is trying to fix your life and put it back together while everything around you seems to fall apart irrevocably.”
The resulting album is undoubtedly the best thing the band have released thus far, and that’s saying something. Having now written music together for seven years, Respire have grown familiar with each other’s playing, something that they cite as a reason for the enhanced cohesiveness in their process and sound. “The members of Respire met over a decade ago,” they explain. “Finding each other in the corridors of the online screamo scene, having grown up listening to bands like pageninetynine, City Of Caterpillar, Suis La Lune and Raein. Though we got to know each other in Toronto’s DIY emo/hardcore scene, playing in several bands together, we all come from a love of a variety of musical genres – post-rock, post-hardcore, shoegaze, slowcore, Canadian indie rock etc. As we write new music through our collaborative process, we’re constantly drawing from each other’s influences, whether it be classical or crust punk.”
This diverse range of genres shines through on all of the band’s releases, and is particularly evident on Black Line. There’s black metal, screamo and hardcore, but there’s also post-rock, doom and even classical. One publication even likened them to nu-metal. “It’s definitely a conscious decision to try and create something original,” the band reveals. “When we first started this band we wanted to make music that was both musically and thematically ambitious, and traversing different styles seemed like a natural extension of that. Our backgrounds also play an important role in the elements we incorporate. As much as we are influenced by heavy music, we also look to Canadian indie music of the 2000s that we grew up loving – bands like Broken Social Scene, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Arcade Fire who also used classical arrangements and orchestral instrumentation in non-traditional ways to make something new and interesting. We wanted to merge all our different loves of passionate, emotional, emotive music under one (heavy) umbrella. (P.S. We aren’t trying to be nu-metal, but it’s a good laugh for sure!).”
Together these disparate elements combine to create the band’s heaviest effort yet – a fitting soundtrack for the current circumstances. “We wanted this record to be a darker, grittier, more guitar-forward sound,” the band tell us. “Dénouement saw us come into our own sound with lush orchestral flourishes, but we wanted to remind people that as a three-guitar band there’s a lot of noise and violence happening behind the beauty and elegance of the violin/viola/trumpet/etc. As we’ve come to split up vocal duties live, we also wanted this record to reflect our stage dynamic of call-and-response vocals more aptly.”
Since music and music consumption are influenced by the environment in which they occur, there has been a tendency this year to tenuously link every new album to what’s going on in the world, but art isn’t released in a vacuum, and it’s only natural to have that desire to inspect the ways in which it reflects reality. “Though that tendency is real this year, I think it is a legitimate factual consideration within Black Line,” the band agree. “We recorded these songs with fires raging all around, only to come out of the studio to face a global pandemic lockdown, rising racial tensions and violence, crippling economies and individual prospects, not to mention a looming election against an increasingly unhinged and powerful despotic ruler.
“Black Line is really an attempt to come to terms with where the individual exists amongst all this pain and suffering, turmoil and upheaval. If we’ve come to learn anything in the last five years, it is that community above all is the key to overcoming our alienation and desolation. We are weak as one but strong as many. Music can be a tool to bring us together, just as much as political activism, to give individuals the feeling that they belong somewhere, a place where their voices are heard, where they matter and where radical empowerment is possible.”
The belief that change is possible through communal effort is something that shines through on Black Line. Like all of the band’s music, it is an album that walks the fine line between the bleak and the beautiful, often seeming dark but also being capable of evoking feelings of elation. Through this dichotomy, the band offer hope. “While we’ve always explored the darkness that can weigh on the self and even society, we’ve maintained a steadfast belief that darkness does not have to equate with hopelessness,” they explain. “Part of the ongoing project of being human, of living in a society, is the struggle against the darkness, of overcoming adversity and of finding hope and joy in a world that can often feel uncaring and unyielding. Our exercise is one of finding community, the tools to hold each other up above the misery. Ours is an exercise in breathing together.”
Music alone cannot change the world, of course, but art is a valuable tool for resistance. It can inspire, enlighten and help us envisage brighter futures, as the band make clear. “We’re firm believers in art as resistance; a platform that allows us to fight back against a dominant social order. Music has for all of us been about bringing people together in a shared experience – a shared experience that can form the basis of a community that coalesces around honest expression, uplifting its members, providing mutual aid and support, while advancing causes we care about.”
Beyond the very real tools music can offer in resistance, music (and art in general) can be vital for mental wellbeing, especially during these arduous times. For Respire, writing and performing has become a key source of catharsis. “It’s pretty remarkable how important creating and performing has become to all of us personally; it’s a vital outlet and key to our mental health and well-being, especially in 2020. Even without the catharsis of live performance, of letting it all out on a sweaty basement floor, we’re trying to stay engaged, writing from a distance together, safely whenever we can. We’re all pushing forward, looking to the end of this, to a time where we can play shows, tour, meet more new people and share our emotions live once again.”
At the time of writing, we’re unsure of when exactly that may be. Tours and album releases were once dependent on the artist and their availability, not to mention financial considerations, but we’re now beholden to a virus and, in many countries, the governments who have mismanaged this pandemic. As excited as we are to see these songs live, Black Line is also an album that seems very suited to right now. It’s a reminder that music has the power to inspire us, and that even if we’re experiencing it alone, there’s a community of people willing to work alongside you to make this world worth living in.
“We wanted this record to be a reflection of the pent-up fears, anxieties, desperation and aggression we’ve grown so accustomed to living with in the 21st century,” they reveal. In doing so, they have given us just a glimmer of hope as this dire year finally reaches its conclusion.
Black Line is out now on Church Road Records. Order here.
Words: George Parr