Post-Hardcore Contradictions: Brutus w/ HarborLights at ONCE Ballroom

by Siddharth Jejurikar

Image provided by publicist, courtesy of Geert Braekers

As a group of post-rock fans and I were chatting outside the venue waiting for doors to open, we were brazenly approached by a blackout drunk 32-year-old who wanted to tell us all about how punk is dead. After spitting a mouthful of beer at the door of the venue when asked not to drink right outside, he ran off to see if he could win a race against a passing car. I did not see him again until during the opening set from HarborLights, where he was kicked out during the first song for punching a bouncer. Despite this already eventful start to the night—both HarborLights and the headliner, Brutus, left me with memories far more lasting. HarborLights, a four-piece Post-Metal band, is a local act. They shook ONCE Ballroom with their growling tone and compositional expertise. It was especially interesting to see some older metalheads get into what is certainly a sound of the last 10 or 15 years. There were no age restrictions to shoving your head inside the monitors that night.
This same cross-generational group, armed to the teeth with skinny jeans, Narragansett tall-boys, and the cheapest concert earplugs that Amazon will let you buy, though disappointed at the end of HarborLights’ set, could not hide their enthusiasm for the headliner. Brutus, a three-piece band coming from Belgium for their first American tour, transformed the industrial and lighting-intensive stage HarborLights used into a minimalist one defined by empty spaces. Monochromatic lighting and room to maneuver put attention on the band members and their performance. The setup complimented their sound—a one-of-a-kind amalgamation of Progressive Rock and Post-Hardcore.
It is impossible to talk about Brutus without giving special attention to their frontwoman, Stefanie Mannaerts. Both the bands drummer and singer, Mannearts’s command of percussion and the microphone made for a ceaselessly intense set. This fact was made clear immediately when the band opened with the first track from their new album, Nest, titled “Fire.” Still, it is the band’s versatility that makes them such Post-Hardcore success story. The next track they played, “Cemetery,” also from Nest, exemplified this perfectly. In the song, Mannaerts goes from the kind of brutal vocalism that would have made Rites of Spring’s Guy Picciotto do a spit-take to a complex and haunting melody that sounds near-wordless at points.
None of this is to say that the bands other members, bassist Peter Mulders and guitarist Stijin Vanhoegaerden, are unworthy of comment. Mulders’s uncanny ability to switch tempo at the drop of a coin and drive the music forward did not seem at all limited by his stage-presence. Meanwhile, the much more understated Vanhoegaerden provided the tragic backdrop that defines Brutus’s sound with a huge tonal pallet, done with a pedal board that may have made the HarborLights instrumentalists blush. Each of the bandmates’ unique skillset comes through in perfect harmony in Nest but was first refined with their 2017 album, Burst, which took up a near-equal proportion of their set. This includes a fan favorite, “Drive,” and the six-minute album closer, “Child.” They eventually closed their set with the closer from Nest, “Sugar Dragon,” which was itself seven minutes long. Neither of these tracks, nor any from the set, felt dragging. This is because of both the intrasong variety endemic to Progressive music and Brutus’s unshakable energy. In fact, the whole twelve-song set felt almost too short—to the point where the audience at ONCE was literally begging for more. Though Brutus could not oblige, they left the stage showered with cheers and praise.
The love between the audience and Brutus at the end of their set should not have been surprising; it was the theme of the whole set. On one hand, the audience constantly showered the band with “we love you”s, responding to each one of the band’s “thanks for having us” with a perfectly in sync “thank YOU for coming,” much like the thank you chains of a honeymoon-phase couple. Every particularly flourishing drum/vocal section was followed by screams of praise for Mannearts. Meanwhile, Mulder’s charisma made the band seem approachable, friendly, and receptive. The band, despite their international acclaim in hardcore circles, came off as nothing but down-to-earth and friendly.
All of this stood in interesting contrast to Brutus’s music itself: terrifying and occasionally savage interpretations of Progressive, Punk, and Metal sounds. This sort of dialectical contradiction, a beautiful disconnect, is what made the night so memorable. An impressionistic picture of events—a punchy drunk, hipsters and metalheads in uniform, old and young faces turned to the glowing stage, the apocalyptic face-mask worn by the HarborLights bassist, and the unqualified quality of Brutus’s music—best embodies the central absurdities of contemporary Hardcore culture for me. These are the absurdities that make the scene so uniquely expressive, accepting, enduring, memorable, and—most of all—downright fun.

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