When people think Belgian exports, their minds often conjure a cornucopia of beer, waffles and chocolates. Music doesn’t factor into the feast so much. And indeed, the nation’s pantheon of homegrown bands (the prog-pop crew dEUS, the dance-punk outfit Soulwax, the dubiously-named indie band Girls in Hawaii) scans as generally underwhelming compared to the rest of the European rock cosmos.
Enter Brutus, a trio from the humble church town of Leuven who just so happen to be soothsayers. They can’t predict the weather or the timing of the apocalypse, but they can perceive the future of hardcore as we know it: a world brimming with ample color and white-hot heat, diametrically opposed to the three-chord, testosterone-fueled orthodoxy often identified with the style. At its center sits drummer-vocalist Stefanie Mannaert, a whirling dervish who juggles otherworldly falsetto hooks with roiling polyrhythms. Her compatriots, bassist Peter Mulders and guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden, swaddle her fury with gauzy, shimmering textures; they’re partial to crystalline post-rock arpeggios, velvety shoegaze, rubbery basslines and flickering synths.
Brutus’ explosive contours are on full display on their debut album, Burst, released in February. Though the LP’s frenetic arrangements reflect a sharp collective focus, the band members are quick to bring up their aesthetic differences. Mannaert and Mulders began their musical partnership as Refused Party Program, a cover-to-cover tribute to the Refused’s 1998 classic The Shape of Punk to Come, but when asked today if they’d ever attempt a similar project, they burst into laughter. “I think that would be so different for the three of us,” Vanhoegaerden chuckles. “Stefanie would probably pick a Slayer album. I would probably pick Bruce Springsteen ...”
“I like Banks and the Weeknd,” chirps Mulders, widening the schism. “I can’t play any electronic instruments except for bass, but if I was covering the Weekend, I’d do it.” His bandmates snicker, ever so softly.
As these forward-thinking Belgians continue to gain traction in the wake of their debut release, it’s only natural that some of Brutus’ musical heroes would take notice. Thrice drummer Riley Breckenridge and Dillinger Escape Plan frontman Greg Puciato are fans, but the group's most notable cheerleader is Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, who played Brutus’ single “Drive” on his Apple Music show, before reaching out to voice his support via email. "He asked us to meet up in Antwerp when Metallica come play in Europe [later this year]," Mulders says, a bit incredulously, before addressing the rest of the group: "We have to work that out." (Yeah, guys, you should really get on that.)
Their fans, both famous and not, can likely sense that beneath the bandmates' current musical-taste schisms lies a firm shared foundation. All three members cite Nineties rock as a major influence in their musical upbringing: Vanhoegaerden and Mulder studied NOFX’s skate-punk, while Mannaert learned to play drums by banging along to nu-metal. Soon the three of them were razing parallel paths through the local hardcore circuit — jagged lines that were bound to converge, given the scene’s modest ranks. Mannaert and Vanhoegaerden spent the latter half of the aughts playing in Starfucker, an emo-tinged hard-rock band. A year or so after the group’s 2011 disbandment, Mannaert and Mulders launched the short-lived Refused Party Program. These respective friendships, and the shared sensibilities inherent therein, would ultimately serve as the catalyst for Brutus’ first rehearsals in 2013.
With its nuanced arrangements and multi-layered effects, Burst could be a handful for a 10-man band to perform, let alone a trio. When the band cut the album in Vancouver last year with producer Jesse Gander (White Lung, Japandroids), they had no performative plan to speak of. “When we wrote the songs, we hadn't played them live before, so we had to adapt some stuff to be able to play it live,” reveals Mulder. Meanwhile, Mannaert — a former drum teacher who works at a music school part-time — found herself in the unfamiliar role of student, taking voice lessons to keep her windpipes intact. “As a child, I always lost my voice really fast,” she says. “And singing in the band doesn't make it better.”
That’s understandable, considering how she never expected to find herself playing frontwoman. “We tried to look for a singer, but it all went well with just the three of us,” recalls Mannaert. At her bandmates’ urging, she begrudgingly accepted her destiny as Brutus’ nexus. “It's still a work in progress,” says Mannaert, sounding a little fatigued, but nonetheless determined.
Another learning experience presented itself in the location of the recording process. For these Old World natives, Vancouver represented the New Utopia, a melting pot well removed from Flemish norms. “In Belgium, we have more problems with multiculturalism,” Mulders says solemnly. “It's not so easy to adapt to here. Vancouver is way ahead of us on that part.”
Which makes it a fitting spot for Brutus to have recorded Burst. Much like the multicultural North American city in which it was birthed, the album breaks down boundaries, not just in terms of composition or style, but European rock writ large: There’s room for everyone, and everything.