Artist: B R I Q U E V I L L E
Featured Work: Quelle
Abstract video footage and TV snow played on a large screen behind an unlit stage for several minutes, accompanied by minimal music. Eventually, as the first song kicked up, lights illuminated the stage and three musicians were prominently visible, with two more so far in the background they could almost be mistaken for roadies. All wore golden masks and black Nazgûl-robes, bathed in smoke and green lighting. Their 40-minute set constituted just three songs, none of which have names. It was a blistering, raw performance that embodied the post-metal spirit, taking the dark and intense textures of metal and using them as tools for atmosphere and catharsis – a sort of Godspeed, You! Black Emperor as performed by Neurosis. Occasionally, the lights changed colors and the screen behind them adjusted its image. After their performance, the band departed the stage as mysteriously as they had taken it, leaving an impressed – but slightly confused – audience in their wake.
This was how Briqueville (stylized B R I Q U E V I L L E) played Dunk! Festival 2017. In fact, this is how Briqueville play all their shows. Anonymous, adorned like members of a secret society, incorporating chanting and abstract video into their performances, the Belgian group distills all aspects of their music into an almost purely subjective experience that pulls focus away from celebrity and toward the sounds and images. Even their songs are unnamed, but numbered continuously throughout their oeuvre – their four-track debut LP ends with “Akte IV” while their sophomore release begins with “Akte V,” for example.
When I contacted the band for an interview in mid-October, I didn’t expect to hear back. Interviews mean phone numbers or Zoom IDs, which could be tied to specific people; video chat requires literal “face time” unless they felt like speaking with me in-costume for an hour or so. In the end, we found a healthy compromise: I e-mailed them 20 questions on topics ranging from their bizarre history to their upcoming tour schedule, encouraging them not to answer anything with which they were uncomfortable, and they wrote me back a series of answers that paralleled the compelling, intangible fashion of the band.
Their answers to certain questions often raised others. Some of what they said sounded simultaneously impossible and irrefutable, leaving me wondering what I should or shouldn’t take with a grain of salt. I still don’t know which of them, or how many of them, were involved in answering the questions I asked. I know that whoever responded to my initial inquiry promised to discuss my pitch – and, subsequently, my questions – with the rest of the band. And I believe that they did.
Briqueville’s mysterious nature dictated the tone of the interview. From brutal murder to the ritual outfit of black robes and gold masks, the following is what I learned about the band and their new album, Quelle.
Briqueville was founded in 2006 in Belgium. According to their artist page on the Pelagic Records website, “Members of Briqueville were active in various other bands from the local jazz, electro and metal scene.” They also held “the ambition to improvise around one single note,” the page said. This is especially tangible in songs like “Akte I,” whose rhythm guitar stays on a single chord an almost uncomfortable duration; and the first ten minutes of “Akte VII,” which are dynamic and fascinating despite their single-note root.
After rehearsing at a school one day, an encounter with a local stranger gave Briqueville its first legend.
“An old man in his eighties told us that there had been a murder at the school gate in Steendorp, just where we were standing,” a member of the band told me. “He then picked up a yellowed newspaper report that said: ‘Son Murders Father with Hammer.’ That headline stuck with us, also because that guy still carried that message so many years later.
“’Maybe he was the son,’ we fantasized. At that moment, in 2006, we started an improvisation set, based on that [patricide].”
Their Pelagic page elaborates on the story, adding that the band believed that the man had been carrying the story in his wallet “for 70 years” and that “the grandparents of one of our band members confirmed the murder had happened…however, we were unable to trace the old man.”
I asked them where they got the name of their band and received an even stranger answer. The band said that the story begins in the aforementioned village of Steendorp – one of three small towns that constitute the municipality Temse in northern Belgium, historically known for its brickmaking. American readers could analogize it to the state of Pennsylvania being known colloquially as “coal country,” so much so that popular urban exploration website Urbex offered some shots of abandoned brick factories in the town.
The river De Schelde, also spelled Scheldt, runs through the town as part of its 220-mile stretch from northern France through the western part of Belgium and out to the North Sea. In 2001, on the banks of De Schelde in Steendorp, “a number of masked men gathered […] to breathe new life into the age-old underground brotherhood ‘Het Verbond der Vrije Steenbakkers,’” the band said. They translated that to “The Confederation of Free Bricklayers,” while Google Translate offers a similar translation – “The Covenant of Free Brickmakers” – from Dutch.
Briqueville said this new generation of the society met with the intention of “permanently remember[ing] the tragic memories of a miserable past.”
“The covenant stayed alive through folk tales about this movement,” they said. “These stories, passed on from grandfather to father to son, were so fascinating that we decided to revive the covenant under the name B R I Q U E V I L L E (French for ‘Steendorp’)…only this time to tell the story by music in order to grant those involved their well-deserved absolution.”
The ominous nature of the band extends to their unnamed songs. I initially assumed “Akte” would translate to the English noun “Act,” as in a section of a play. It wasn’t until much later that I tried translating it from Dutch.
The band seldom use lyrics, with “Akte VI” and “Akte VII” standing out as rare exceptions. However, Briqueville are Belgian, so why aren’t their lyrics in Dutch?
“We use the French and English language as a way to get our central feelings across,” they said. “Maybe in the future this can also be an ‘invented language’ if that fits better to the music or acting as another instrument.”
If they did choose to go the route of using an invented language for their music, they would join a short list of bands to do so. Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós often employ a gibberish or “baby talk” language called Hopelandic, while bands like Cocteau Twins and Ruins – of England and Japan, respectively – have made up nonsense languages of their own. Magma, a French band, created a real language in which to sing in 1969.
Inventing a language would also add one more layer of anonymity to the band. Besides their masks and song names, even their albums barely have titles. Their 2014 debut is self-titled, while its follow-up, released in 2017, is called II. The closest to a proper title they’ve offered is their third LP, 2020’s Quelle, which is taken from letters of the name of the band.
“We want to keep the focus on the music experience and any kind of distraction would not benefit our music,” they said. “If we gave song titles to our songs, we would give the listener a clear frame of reference and thus steer in a certain direction. Our idea is that music experience should be something very subjective, free of any ballast in the listening experience.”
The closest hint they gave me to an intended meaning of their music was when I asked them about their numbered songs continuing from one album to another.
“We see our repertoire as one entity divided into the three themes we have so far,” they said. “We use B R I Q U E V I L L E in the questioning of self and questioning of the world and reality. Our first album was about shame and regret, the second album about ownership and transience. Our new album Quelle deals with the continuous spiral of hope and despair.” On the website for North American distributor IndieMerch, the rundown for Quelle says that it deals with “water and sand as a source of life and death.” The band said that water is also hope, while sand represents despair, and that Quelle is their first album to deal with events and setbacks in their own private spheres. The coronavirus pandemic, they said, was essential to the album musically and mentally.
The rest is up to the listener to decide.
Briqueville has stated in the past that their outfits not only remove the focus from themselves, but they create a culture of equality within the band. They’ve even said the masks make it easy to switch band members without anyone noticing. But does that mean the same five members switch instruments or that they have additional members waiting in the wings to be tagged in or out like a baseball team? When asked about this, they only said they were “a number of anonymous musicians in a collective that varies in composition.” Question by question, the band began seeming like a slider puzzle – every time it seemed like an image was becoming clear, something would seem out of place and the rearrangement of pieces would begin anew.
They were, however, very candid about the unique Briqueville outfit of black robes and gold masks.
“The exuberant golden masks are the symbol of actual absolution; our sober jet-black robes are a reflection of the inner struggle that must eventually lead to the final catharsis,” Briqueville said. “We also very much believe in the importance of music and image and how we as performers should strive to present ourselves in a way that our music demands and deserves. One of our main intentions is to embody our music – to us, the visuals are no less crucial than the sound.”
Those visuals include the unlikely – and only known – face of Briqueville. A gaunt, world-weary man who appears to be in his 50s has come to represent many facets of the group over the years. He appears as a model for their t-shirts on the Briqueville Facebook page, his bare back adorns the cover of Quelle and he is the lone subject of their music videos for “Akte VI” and “Akte XIII.”
“We are inspired by people and artists around us and one of those people is Norbert,” they said. “He is an inspiring poet/artist and was willing to embody B R I Q U E V I L L E in our artwork. We feel so lucky to be inspired and motivated by such gifted people and feel that we have just started exploring the possibilities of future collaboration.”
On the subject of inspirations, one more thin ray of light may soon be shed on Briqueville: The band promised an upcoming Spotify playlist of bands that have influenced them over the years. Additionally, the band pushed several shows back from Fall 2020 to as-yet-determined dates in 2021 since Belgium recently entered a second national lockdown. After they make up those shows and release their playlist, however, judging by the band’s average release schedule, it may be 2023 before another piece is added to the Briqueville puzzle. In the meantime, they remain a fascinating, enjoyable and bizarre experience to hear, to see and to feel.
Special thanks to Evans Wilson Media.