As we reach the end of 2020, what have we learned from the events of this most unprecedented of years? Do we dare to dream of a better future? Or just sink further into collective despair? Is it too early to come to any conclusions, even if there seems to be a possible light at the end of the tunnel? Well Toronto’s Respire are here to offer some sort of an answer. Their newest album, Black Line is a work of searing, emotive hope, a wonderful antithesis to the relentless pessimism that has consumed the cultural discourse in these dark, dark days.
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“The main theme or goal of Black Line centres around self-empowerment and recovery in an otherwise un-recovering world,” says Respire as a collective. “It’s easy to fall victim to mass scale pessimism, defeatism, depression and a sense of constant impending loss in 2020. The record is first and foremost about trying to find a redemptive way forward in such an overwhelmingly negative time.” This sort of mentality is as fresh and invigorating as a blast of ice water to the face. In these dispiriting times, Respire are determined not to let the weight of the world get to them, and are using their art to offer a potential way forward.
Progression is built into the band’s DNA, and is most immediately apparent in Black Line's expansion of Respire's expansive, orchestral-backed sound. Their screamo/post-rock fusion is complemented by the violin of Eslin McKay, whose work gives the electrifying heaviness a sense of organic beauty. Respire explains; “When we first started as a band we wanted to stand out, sound different, and appeal to fans of many different kinds of music. As lovers of music that incorporate classical components in non-traditional ways, we wanted to engage that emotive element while playing heavy, aggressive, emotional music.”
"We tried something new this time, by renting a cottage where we could spend full days writing without distraction. Most songs on this record were conceived by the six core members near the shores of Lake Erie over a cold April long weekend"
Most fittingly, Respire’s work is undercut with a palpable air of collectivity, a sense that their music is created by a group working together towards a collective vision. This in itself is a metaphor for their ideology, and, as if to further underscore the point, they chose to answer the questions for this interview as a band, rather than via an individual member. For a group with so many moving parts, does this mean that their music takes much time and thought during its creation phase? Respire agree; “With six members in our core family and then anywhere from four to ten more in our extended family of collaborators, we’re a slow-moving behemoth sometimes.”
“We began writing the songs that would become Black Line shortly after we finished recording our last album, Dénouement. We tried something new this time, by renting a cottage where we could spend full days writing without distraction. Most songs on this record were conceived by the six core members near the shores of Lake Erie over a cold April long weekend.” The feel of the crisp Canadian spring comes through vividly on Black Line. Much like the spring, Black Line conveys the sound of something changing, as if moving from a harsh winter to the potential bliss of summer.
“When we began writing Black Line, we knew we wanted it to “feel” somewhat different to our previous work,” Respire explains. “We had lots of delicate orchestral flourishes on Dénouement, to the point where the guitar work feels almost like background. We realized while writing these songs that there was a new level of urgency and aggression not present in our previous material.” It’s certainly true that Black Line doesn’t skimp on the heaviness. From ‘Tempest’s black metal opening to the sludgey ‘Embers To End’, Black Line is, first and foremost, a metal album, one of intense ferocity. The band elaborates; “We envisioned the new record with a darker, heavier, more guitar-forward sound, to reflect the darkness, anxiety, and fear engulfing the world.”
However, this heaviness is also tempered with stretches of beauty and calm. The two-minute interlude ‘Kinderling’ is a particularly poignant highlight. An ambient meditation composed of natural, organic textures, it comes as especially startling compared to the rest of Black Line’s full-throttle intensity. Then there’s the heartbreaking, folky opening to ‘Lost Virtue’, and the Howard Zinn speech that follows. The philosopher’s famous “the future is an infinite succession of presents” quote opens the speech, which then continues to eloquently and passionately describe a guide to living that may just be the key to escaping our current mire.
"There is only so much we can individually hope to accomplish against the mounting tide of the world’s problems and ailments."
This speech is the key to understanding Black Line’s ideological perspective. “There are no easy answers in life, least of all in 2020,” Respire elaborates. “There is only so much we can individually hope to accomplish against the mounting tide of the world’s problems and ailments. The words on the back of Narcotics Anonymous’ first sobriety badge read Just For Today - because in early recovery all we can hope to do is live day to day, to measure ourselves against the immediate obstacles to come and aim to persevere. There is an immediate effectuality in the awareness that the present is all we can control, and that the future is simply made of a collection of these presents.”
Respire’s worldview is nuanced, thoughtful and inspiring. Their focus on the future is one that is understandably missing from many of our headspaces, so for them to even tackle this task of imagining a positive alternative is one that takes great intelligence and commands the utmost of respect. Questioned on their vision of the future, Respire are measured but cautiously optimistic; “it looks bleak, to be quite honest. However, we hope that this pandemic and upheaval has brought us to an inflection point - one where we can choose to build a better world from the ashes of the old. For that, we’re hopeful.”