‘We are not defined by the ugliness of this world, but by the beauty in our hearts, strike your match and set fire to that which rots us all’
I don’t know if it is just me, but it is becoming so incredibly difficult to stay happy nowadays. With everything that is going on, both on a societal and an existential level, the threat of our impending doom is incredibly taxing on the mind. Reading and hearing nothing but disheartening news headlines on a day-to-day basis drains the life out of us and takes away any feeling of hope that we may have. It is no question that so many people, myself included at times, are so hopelessly pessimistic more often than not nowadays. If there really is no hope, then why bother?
Ironically enough, I find that nihilism can be beautiful at times. Although there is the mindset that everything is pointless and nothing truly matters, that very mindset can help one break free of mental roadblocks preventing them from living their own life without fear of judgement. If everything truly is meaningless, then I shouldn’t overthink every little thing in fear that people will judge me, I should just go and live my own damn life and do it to the fullest extent that I can. I am what gives meaning to my own life. Creating my own joy and deriving my own meaning in a world devoid of any is what gives me power. Translating this ‘beauty in nihilism’ to music brings me to a special group called Respire, and you guessed it… Respire are this week’s Weekly Featured Artist!
Hailing from Toronto, Respire are a group unlike any other. Ever since their inception back in 2013, they have always had a crystal-clear vision on what they wanted to create musically and to this day, they continue to refine that vision. Respire have always been effective at bringing two worlds on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, statistically unlikely to ever collide until now, into one painfully beautiful entity. In reality, their music is an amalgam of so many sounds and influences that it is a disservice to pigeonhole them down to the two predominant characteristics of their sound. They even deem themselves as an ‘orchestral post-everything collective‘ and that is honestly the best way to sum up their sound in the fewest amount of words possible. Regardless, who would’ve thought that black metal and hardcore would go well with orchestral/classical elements? Not me. On paper, this sounds like a mess waiting to happen but Respire just make it work.
From the get-go, everything about Respire has been DIY-or-die. They’re highly active in the DIY-scene in Toronto. Dating all the way back to their first EP/demo collection, Demonstration, their unique twist on hardcore was theirs and theirs alone. This wasn’t a sound they grew into over time with each successive release; it was there from the day Respire were born. Ever since then, they’ve been collectively refining this enthralling musical blend that they’ve created across releases.
Their debut LP, Gravity and Grace sets the tone for how magical their music can get. “Pitter Patter” opens the record in such a way that doesn’t sound too removed from a Disney movie. The way that the glockenspiel that leads this track is so infectiously bouncy and playful, especially alongside the swelling trumpet that fills the ‘empty space’. This intro track really sets the tone by putting a big smile on your face with its lavish instrumental arrangements, but as it transitions into “Ascent”, that happy tone is still maintained despite transitioning into a blackened hardcore aural onslaught. You wouldn’t expect this to sound as good as it does, but right from the start, it all makes perfect sense.
Although the first ‘real’ track on Gravity and Grace, “Ascent” takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions with unsurmountable highs and unfathomable lows. The linear nature of their music allows for these purely organic compositions to take you to places you wouldn’t imagine you’d ever go. I’d equate this musical and highly emotional journey to the stages of grief. All the emotions captured throughout all of Respire’s music aptly portrays all the feelings that one experiences while grieving a love one for example.
Just through the pure emotive tone of the music alone, you’re taken through bouts of disbelief and denial, anger and anguish, regret and reflections, hopelessness and humility, and with enough time and emotional support, you make your peace. During this time of acceptance, you reflect on all those beautiful memories and you always will from then on; all these collective acceptances mold us into the people that we are today. The cycle of life is brutal and unforgiving, and although it does seem meaningless, it is up to us to find beauty in the little things and bring meaning to our own lives and the things that we are passionate about. Respire do exactly that through their music.
From the massive weight always in the back of our minds due to our perpetually troubled world, to finding meaning in one’s own life, Rohan Lilauwala from Respire share their collective mindset on their take on the world and how one can cope with it all:
‘The direction our society is going is truly terrifying to all of us. We face a two-headed existential threat: a looming climate catastrophe that is being largely ignored by the powers that be (GY!BE’s car on fire with no driver at the wheel is such a perfect metaphor); and a rising tide of fascism and authoritarianism across the world emboldened by misinformation, paranoia, and conspiratorial thought. Both of these challenges are commanded by a chosen few, the titans of industry and politics who will enrich themselves at any and every cost to the planet and society at large. As a band that has members with multiple overlapping identities (immigrant, queer, female, POC, gay), we are all too aware of our fragile place in a society that is always looking for scapegoats as things crumble around us.
‘It’s very easy to turn to nihilism and defeatism as coping mechanisms (we’re all guilty of that from time to time), but I think that from the beginning, Respire was about finding hope, purpose, and relief in our communal bonds. Coming together to raise our collective voices and empower one another to fight for a world we want to live in.‘
Dénouement is the sophomore release that followed Gravity and Grace, ultimately taking the trademark Respire sound even further than before; this is something that 2020’s Black Line would still continue to expand upon. Like Gravity and Grace, Dénouement is beyond bleak yet undeniably charming and tender in tone. Regarding the lyrical content on these two records, Rohan had this to say:
‘Our last two records (Dénouement and Black Line) are both somewhat of the ‘concept album’ variety, in the sense that both records respectively tell a cohesive and singular story. Dénouement was written and recorded at an extremely difficult time personally, while Egin (our primary lyricist) was emerging out of the swamp that is long-term substance abuse and addiction. As such, it is perhaps the most personal, and most vulnerable of our lyrical work. Black Line was an attempt to write not about the singular ‘self,’ but about the collective, and the difficult times we all find ourselves in as unwilling participants of the death-cult that is late-stage capitalism. Both records, at their core, are about the search for hope and a way through the darkness we often find our lives embroiled in. Dénouement is about re-discovering agency in the thick of addiction. Black Line is about doing the same in a world stuck on a never-ending cycle of depersonalizing tragedy and hopeless prospects.’
I’ve already taken too much real estate word-wise thus far, so I’ll focus more on the companion album to Dénouement. Let’s talk Memorial (An Accompaniment). Up until now, I completely thought that this was a companion piece in which the orchestral elements heard on Dénouement were expanded upon and rearranged, creating this orchestral ‘rendition’. It wasn’t until I spoke with Rohan that I learned that the music heard on Memorial isn’t a rearrangement nor a rendition by any means. It is simply the orchestral elements from Dénouement isolated from the rest of the music; that’s it.
Shameless to say that realization left me beyond impressed. When asked about how Memorial came to be, Rohan had this to say:
‘We really are blessed to have so many talented friends and collaborators contribute to our records. Dénouement was the first time we felt we were able to come close to our vision of orchestrally rich, emotionally heavy music. Their contributions made the album so special and took it over the top of what we envisaged. At the same time, the delicate textures and intricate melodies often get lost under the weight of the more traditional ‘rock’ instruments. Our producer Paul Mack isolated the orchestral tracks and as soon as we listened to them, we knew they could stand on their own, and would help shine a light on some of the many layers that up to that point, were shrouded in darkness.’
Listening through Memorial with this all in mind, it is really impressive how much detail is put into the orchestral aspects of the music, enough so that it creates an enchanting musical world all on its own as heard on Memorial. It is unfortunate that you don’t really get to hear those elements as clearly on the original version of the album, with the ‘traditional’ instruments and the production covering most of it up. But at least this album exists to give us a better appreciation of what is going into Respire‘s music; think of it as a behind the scenes of sorts! If you want an even further breakdown of the music heard on Memorial (An Accompaniment), check out our review here!
Now we find ourselves at Black Line, the crème de la crème of Respire‘s hauntingly beautiful discography (so far…). This particular album is the one that feels the darkest, with so many gloomy moments full of anguish. While the music on this album hits the lowest of lows on the emotional spectrum, it also shines the brightest with how much hope the music also inspires. Take “Tempest” for example, starting off with savage black metal onslaught to the long and slow, emotionally painful build-up to a massively hopeful and inspiring musical climax with swooning trumpet blarings and aptly-dramatic violin legatos. There are so many special things about this record that I can talk all day, but I’m already dragging this on a little too long as much as I’d hate to admit. At least I can yet again plug our review on Black Line here if you want to hear it broken down even more!
On every single song that Respire have ever crafted, especially on Black Line, there is a strikingly beautiful balance in the composition that allows the mellow yet grandeur classical musical components to shine alongside the blisteringly chaotic hardcore passages and vice versa. After all this time of these two musical niches between distant from one another, it appears that they’ve been destined to come together as Respire made this amalgam sound truly organic and not forced whatsoever. Despite living in such dark times (historically, all times have been dark if you ask me), at least we are lucky to live at the same time as Respire; they provides a glimmer of light in a world shrouded in perpetual darkness.
Photo credit: David Pike
Ben Oliver – Bass, Vocals
Travis Dupuis – Drums
Darren Scarfo – Guitars, Vocals
Egin Kongoli – Guitar, Vocals, Additional Instruments
Rohan Lilauwala – Guitar, Vocals, Additional Instruments
Eslin McKay – Violin, Viola, Vocals, Piano
With how many emotions the music never fails to instill within me, it reminds me what it means to be human and that is the main thing that I love about Respire. Their music is so heartfelt and genuine, and that fact alone is comforting as it is encouraging. Their songs are a reminder for me to keep pushing onwards, even if I am up against an immovable wall; I will continue to try and never give up. Only once I’ve fully given up and accepted my fate have I failed and I refuse to get to that point. The vulnerable nature of the music never fails to make me feel hopeful about myself and the future, especially with how futile that seems at times. If Respire have yet to make their way into your ears and your heart, then hopefully this article is what inspires you to make that change! Be sure to give Respire a follow on their Facebook and Bandcamp pages to stay up to date on any news.