There are times when I am fully on the hype machine for new music, bands, or movements within the greater sphere of the music that I enjoy. Last year Blackbraid dropped their first album, Blackbraid I, and while it found a receptive ear for me, I wasn’t as fully on board as those around me. It was an excellent debut, and I loved the aesthetics, themes, and am of course fully on board with more cultural representation within metal, especially black metal. Simply put, I was happy that Blackbraid was here and was poised to make an impact. About a year later, the second album was announced, and when the singles began making their way out, I was paying attention and that patience and hope were immediately rewarded.
Blackbraid II begins with a crackling acoustic introduction with a lilting riff that is employed by the song that follows, “The Spirit Returns”, and while I generally dislike beginning my discussion of an album at the beginning, this motif is something sets up the structure of the record, and while it’s not necessarily novel, it works extremely well from the start. It also becomes very evident that this album is already a different animal, as the intentional structure and unbridled ferocity speak to an artist that is growing right in front of our eyes. And that growth is present through every second of II. The song structures are more complex, there’s a variety of microgenres employed from one track to the next, and there’s zero filler on an album that clocks over an hour. So let me talk about some of these songs.
Early on the album, “The Wolf That Guides The Hunter’s Hand” stands tall as what makes this album such a stunner. The howling wolf, the gallop of the drums, and the trem-picked riffs of layered guitars are immediately transporting to a place rife with possibility that’s both haunting and pastoral. This is one of the areas that Blackbraid has nailed from the start, but it’s so much more palpable here due to the maturation of the songwriting and how the dynamics of the song weave a tapestry of riffs and legends. Another takeaway from Blackbraid II that will show itself more and more as this album opens up is just how cohesive this record is without sitting in the same pocket for very long.
The two longest songs, “ Moss Covered Bones on the Altar of the Moon” and “A Song of Death on Winds of Dawn”, come near the center of the album, and this creates a sort of mass around that the rest of the record orbits and is in many ways the center chapter of this sprawling album that, despite it being nearly double the length of Blackbraid I, never feels like it overstays its welcome. “Moss…” closes in on 14 minutes, and while that’s a hefty duration by most standards, the changes in rhythm and riff give this song an amplitude sonically, all the while flutes accent the story of gods and glades. It’s a captivating portrait in every regard. As a fan of metal for a long time, this sort of imagery and storytelling feels pretty unique and fresh amidst the gore and misanthropy that the genre generally purveys.
The beginning of the final third of the album is marked by the gorgeous, windswept interlude “Celestial Passage” and quickly transitions into one of my personal favorite songs on the album, “Twilight Hymn of Ancient Blood”. Beginning with the flavor of doom this song has one of the most stark transitions of any song on Blackbraid II, as the second half of the song throws down one of the best thrash riffs of the year and rides it until the brakes fall off. It’s a goddamn ripper. It’s also quickly counterpointed by the morose follow-up, “Sadness and the Passage of Time and Memory”, which closes out the album in earnest before a cover of Bathory’s “A Fine Day to Die” wraps things up. It’s also a fine cover.
Blackbraid II was one of the albums that I was genuinely curious about when the news of its arrival dropped, but I wasn’t really prepared for how much I’d love it. I’m often stubbornly resistant to waves of hype, but this is one that I now fully endorse. There’s a genuine beauty to this album that pulls me back again and again. For all of the diversity on Blackbraid II – and there’s plenty of it – these disparate parts feel like they belong. Black metal is the foundation but is hardly the only material used to build this monolith. While little time has passed, and we have to assume some overlap in writing Blackbraid I and II, the latter feels like a leap forward in many, many ways and is a testament to just how important putting together a good set of songs can be for an album. The end of 2023 is a ways off, but there is no doubt that this album will stick with me well into the list season.