Blackbraid
Blackbraid II

Anyone who’s paid any attention to the world of metal music in the last two years probably needs no introduction to Blackbraid at this point which, in and of itself, is pretty astounding. In fact, we’re not even a full two years removed from Sgah’gahsowáh (AKA Jon Krieger) unleashing the one-man project’s first two blistering tracks on a completely unsuspecting world (“Barefoot Ghost Dance on the Blood Soaked Soil” and “The River of Time Flows Through Me,” both released in February of 2022).

In the short period of time that has followed, the man has gone from releasing his first critically-acclaimed full length (which, deservedly, became one of the most buzzworthy records of last year), to playing his very first live shows on a small east coast tour, to playing Hellfest amongst a veritable who’s who of extreme music elite, to joining on this year’s friggin’ Decibel tour with the legendary Dark Funeral, one of the most highly regarded names in the game today in Cattle Decapitation, and one of the scene’s more buzzworthy acts in 200 Stab Wounds. I cannot think of another band that has gone from non-existence to this level of notoriety so quickly, and certainly not from a one-man Black Metal project from what is, I can genuinely attest to, pretty much the middle of nowhere in the Adirondacks. It’s fucking bonkers.

Of course, the double edged sword of being able to capture lightning in a bottle to the extent Sgah’gahsowáh has in such a brief period of time, is figuring out how to keep that momentum going – especially when you consider he’s likely still in the process of learning how to be in a touring band, still setting the foundation of what he wants Blackbraid to be, and I’d assume still coming to terms with what has become  a much bigger response to this project than he could have hoped for just a short time ago. So maybe it’s no wonder that he’s decided to come out so quickly with his sophomore album while ideas and motivations are still running so rampant, and while it can be a gamble to work at such a breakneck pace (you can’t long for something that never goes away), it’s a gamble that seems to have paid off in a big way with Blackbraid II for a couple very distinct reasons.

 

First, Blackbraid II goes a very long way to further solidify Blackbraid‘s identity. While I’m not suggesting that the band will, or should sound a specific kind of way forever, I feel pretty confident that moving forward I’ll be able to pick a Blackbraid track out of a lineup pretty quick. That’s a good thing – it helps to establish Blackbraid as it’s own unique entity in the world of heavy music, and as the album begins in earnest with its first act (including the very pretty instrumental intro “Autumnal Hearts Ablaze”) “The Spirit Returns” takes you right back to where this all started – everything from tone, to pacing, to the mix of fury and grace, it’s all spot on with where we left at the end of  Sgah’gahsowáh’s first album. The melodic middle section brings you right back to the haunting beauty of his beloved Adirondack mountain forests, while “The Wolf That Guides the Hunters Hand” reminds you that the beautiful side of nature is always just a turn away from its brutality. It’s a super aggressive pivot, at times even breaking into the kind of almost D-Beat paces that always get me feeling all abuzz, sending me into a sort of berserker mode that puts all nearby objects in imminent danger. About halfway through, Sgah’gahsowáh busts out a heavy, swinging riff that harkens directly back to “The River of Time Flows Though Me,” not so much in a way that feels recycled, but instead creates an organic through-line in Blackbraid‘s work, providing a connection from one album to the next. It points to the idea that Blackbraid II isn’t necessarily meant to be taken as an entirely different entity from its predecessor, but rather a compliment to it (if I had to guess, I would bet that both these initial tracks were at least written, if not recorded at the same time as I).

From there, Blackbraid II begins to formulate the other half of what makes this album a success by starting to expand the boundaries of Blackbraid‘s sound. After the spooky instrumental “Spells of Moon and Earth” turns the page to the next chapter, “Moss Covered Bones on the Altar of the Moon” follows suit with a darker, more mysterious sound – starting first with almost ceremonial drumming that feels like the beginning of some Shamanistic ritual, followed by a more droning, very doomy riff that speaks to some ancient wisdom at the heart of the album’s second act. The accompanying guitar melody is a thing of beauty, first appearing with a blackened, tremolo-picked flair, that progresses to a more epic, confident Bathory-inspired iteration that flexes Sgah’gahsowáh’s muscles a bit. He even follows the same melody later on in the song with a traditional flute – which he thankfully utilizes a little more than he did on his first go-around – smartly interweaving all of the elements that make Blackbraid the project that it is.

But where “Moss Covered Bones” lays thick on the more mysterious ends of the band’s identity, “A Song of Death on Winds of Dawn” instead goes right on the attack, galloping into your speakers with some of Sgah’gahsowáh’s rawest, most furious Black Metal riffs yet. Don’t let the brief respite in the middle of the track’s 11+ minute fool you – this track is here to melt faces, and once again a TON of credit needs to go to producer Neil Schneider not just for another stellar production job, but for also providing another incredible drumming performance on II. He successfully infuses a whole other sense of energy and urgency to these songs that I’m not sure programmed drums, no matter how crazy good they’ve become these days, would be able to capture.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all comes in the form of “Twilight Hymn of Ancient Blood,” where Sgah’gahsowáh leaves his greatest hint of all that Blackbraid may be much more of a fluid project than we’d maybe given it credit for. After a heaving, Doom-drenched opening half, layered with his signature emotive screaming, everything comes to a halt before Blackbraid goes all Blood Fire Death-era Bathory with an absolute scorcher thrash riff. It’s completely off-brand with anything you’ve come to understand of this project to this point, but goddamn if it doesn’t instantly put you in the mood for a circle pit – you’re even treated to the first ever proper Blackbraid guitar solo which, honestly, fuckin’ rips, and the song even ends on what could arguably be called a… breakdown? IT’S WILD. I was mowing my lawn the first time I gave this album a full run through, and it absolutely stopped me in my tracks at first, but the absolute burst of adrenaline it provided soon had me mowing at breakneck speeds. It may have thrown my perfectly manicured grid lines completely out the window, but man is it fun. I’ll take more Thrashbraid down the road any time. It also doesn’t hurt that it leads up so nicely to the cover of Bathory‘s Blood Fire Death classic, “A Fine Day to Die” which more than does the original justice – though during the song’s brief atmospheric, it’d have been fucking killer if Sgah’gahsowáh had replaced the synths with some of his flute work to give it a distinctly Blackbraid flair. Oh well, we can’t have everything, I guess.

I will say, going from a debut that ran a little over half an hour, to a follow-up that runs over an hour – it’s a ballsy move, especially when there are only 4 more tracks. But somehow, Blackbraid II manages to avoid sounding long-winded. The clever use of instrumental interludes throughout the album certainly helps, clearly marking the start of the album’s distinct passages, certainly goes a long way to evenly pace out the album – and further cement Sgah’gahsowáh’s impressive songwriting prowess that stretch far beyond what his lack of experience might suggest. Of course, when you’re making a project that’s held so closely to the heart as Blackbraid is to this young man, the genuine product he’s creating is plain to see. I can say, definitively, that Blackbraid has left any thoughts of a “sophomore slump” well behind, and has succeeded not only in further establishing who Sgah’gahsowáh is as an artist, but gives us some tantalizing promise of what he could still become. This is a fantastic triumph for such a young act.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
July 17th, 2023

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