A palpable sense of collectivity surrounds Respire and Black Line, the Toronto band’s third studio album. Everything from their website name (respirefamily.com) to the number of musicians that feature on the album (twelve) makes Respire feel more like a collective, or perhaps a movement, than a traditional band. This sense of group action and cooperation is intuitively mirrored by the thematics and lyrics of Black Line, which focus on the myriad injustices tearing at the fabric of life on Earth in this era of environmental crises.
Respire’s sonic palette makes heavy use of dramatic orchestral strings, courtesy of violinist Eslin McKay. This gives the music a mournful, almost eulogistic quality. Is Black Line mourning the potential ecological death of the planet? Or signaling the demise of the forces that seek to perpetuate this eventuality? These two tones battle it out across Black Line, however by the end it’s clear that Respire are seeking to craft a work of redemption, something that is ultimately hopeful rather than driven by sorrow or defeatism.
Underneath these orchestral flourishes, the rest of the band provide an emotive, often quite spectacular bed of post-rock influenced screamo. It’s interesting to see how the urgent, volatile genre of screamo has adopted the austere, controlled dynamics and textures of post-rock, yet it’s become something almost de rigueur for the genre over the last two decades. Respire especially recall the Japanese soundscape masters Envy and Mono, while also channelling the frantic chaos of City Of Caterpillar, Loma Prieta and Saetia. Tracks ‘Lost Virtue’ and ‘Flicker And Faint’ are built around the techniques of tension and release that are endemic to both screamo and post-rock, as are numerous other moments across Black Line.
This mode of construction gives the songs real dramatic flair. ‘Tempest’ begins with a blackgaze opening stretch, before calming into a guitar-driven instrumental break and a build-up that recalls the monolithic Godspeed You! Black Emperor. ‘Cicatrice’ has a similar structure, led by an opening of similar weight and magnitude, it then eases into a celebratory section of gang vocals and chanting lyrics. These are the fastest and hardest tracks on the album, though are by no means the most intense. Remarkably, interlude ‘Kindling’ lands as one of the most devastating tracks on Black Line. Delicate guitars and serene birdsong follow a similar tension building structure, but the song never erupts, simply closing with a stretch of ambient, urban noise. These brief two minutes fulfil a function similar to the band’s moniker; an inhale of breath allowing you to pause and take in your surroundings. In doing so, ‘Kindling’ reminds us of the beauty of our planet, and what an awful thing it would be to lose it.
A bold, dramatic and incendiary album, Black Line is also one of great heart and soul; a wonderful contrast to the rampant and lazy nihilism that has become entrenched in our culture. Formally, it reminds us that collaboration is a productive and beautiful thing, and aesthetically it evokes images of a world of great splendour, one of intense darkness but also of monumental, grand beauty. Respire are doing noble work here, and deserve huge plaudits for their empowering and progressive sensibilities.