Album Review: Brutus’ ‘Unison Life’

Written by Zac Djamoos

Every heavy band inevitably comes to a point, sooner or later, when they decide to tone things down. You can’t stay heavy forever, or so it seems. For some bands, like Pianos Become the Teeth or Thrice, who cast a shadow over much of Brutus’ third record, this involves delving into spacier post-rock territory. For Glassjaw or Trophy Scars, this means going experimental. A band like Hundredth goes full-on shoegaze. For Brutus, it means a little of all of the above. 

Unison Life is Brutus’ departure record: one which sees them step outside the bounds of post-hardcore and become just a straight-up great rock band. There are fragments of other bands that rear their heads now and then over its 40 minutes–other women-led heavy bands are sure to be cynical comparison points, projects like Ithaca, Helms Alee, Rolo Tomassi, Svalbard–but the sound Brutus crafts on Unison Life is all their own, a refreshing mix of ambiance and aggression.

“Miles Away” is the first hint; built on ominous, spacey synths, it’s a slow-burning introduction to Unison Life, a real calm-before-the-storm moment. But even when “Brave” kicks in with the pummeling riffs for which Brutus is known, they coat them in a layer of distortion that’s more Slow Crush than Birds in Row. Its second verse calls back to the breakneck punk tempos of Burst, but that’s all over as quick as it came, and the song snaps back into place. “Victoria,” which follows, represents perhaps the most significant break with Brutus’ earlier material. It’s a fairly straightforward alternative rock song, and while Stefanie Maennerts’ vocal performance is a little rough around the edges, it’s easily the catchiest, poppiest song the band’s ever released.

The opening three tracks really set the tone for Unison Life and do well to establish the album’s sonic boundaries. While single “Liar” calls back to the technical post-hardcore of Burst, it’s an outlier on the record, and “Dust,” which occasionally slips back into classic hardcore fury, takes a hard left turn for a soaring space rock chorus and a gorgeous coda. It calls to mind the aggressive openness of Vheissu, and Thrice’s balance of light and dark shines through clearly on the more dynamic tracks on Unison Life.

But the songs where the band commits most fully to the former and turns in their lighter tracks are, interestingly, often the most successful songs on the album. “What Have We Done” layers Maennerts’ operatic vocals over classic post-rock crescendos and is an easy highlight on the record. “Chainlife” is the band fully committing to the post-metal label that’s trailed them for years, nearly abandoning hardcore brutality in favor of atmosphere. 

It’s a lesson more bands could stand to learn. When every second of a record is unendingly heavy, the whole thing often turns out muddled and exhausting. But on Unison Life, the most punishing moments come more sparingly, and the album is more invigorating for it. By the time the triumphant “Desert Rain” fades out, the trio has trawled through the isolation of “Miles Away,” the dynamic desperation of “Dust,” and the sludgy regret of “Dreamlife,” and it feels like they’ve truly accomplished something great.

Score: 7

Zac Djamoos is an editor at The Alternative, and his writing has appeared in Merry-Go-Round Magazine, AbsolutePunk, Funeral Sounds, and more.

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