I first saw Braids in 2011 as a support act to Wild Beasts. The Canadian, then five-piece, somewhat stole the gig. They were innovative, unusual, and raw. Beautifully beguiling with a brittle bite. I have been a fan and a follower ever since. At that gig, nearly 20 years ago, my benchmark for Braids was set as well as my expectation for quality support acts. Now on their fourth album and stripped down to a three-piece, the band struggle to achieve to the same level as those early performances and debut release Native Speaker.
Shadow Offering has glimmers of Braids former releases but with a new direction and an attempt to adopt a new maturity and sensibility. In a five-year break between albums and following the departure of keyboard and vocalist Katie Lee, Braids have embarked on a more accountable and politically involved purpose. Shadow Offering makes many allusions to the sun and eclipse as extended allegories for unrequited love and the existence’s seedy, dark underbelly. Bitten by brutality, lead vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s wide-ranging soprano wails and contorts under a multitude of stresses.
“Fear of Men” and “Just Let Me” chart some of Standell-Preston’s distressed and tortuous relationships with striking effect. At nine minutes in length, “Snow Angel” is Braids attempt at combining music, lyricism, spoken word, and experimental melodies. While there is a lot of promise, “Snow Angel” is not “The End” by the Doors. Lyrically the song is shallow and scratches a shopping list of buzzwords in a stream-on-consciousness freneticism that deprives each issue of real grounding and exploration. Unfortunately, “Snow Angel” feels uninspired and empty right at the moment that Braids are attempting to be. A turning point in the album, it somewhat sours the tracks that have preceded it, the quality of the two remaining pedestrian tracks doesn’t bring the album back to the quality that Braids are shooting for.
The melodies attached to Standell-Preston’s lyrics are characteristically sprawling and beguiling. Using a broad melodic range, they dance over the ethereal synthscapes and textures we have come to appreciate from Braids. The band’s treatment of melody is somewhat Wagnerian. There are many traditional melodies on the album you can repeat and stick in your head, these are most prevalent on the more ‘poppy’ songs “Young Buck” and “Here 4 You”. There are also floating and seemingly aimless melodies, devoid of conventional shape. Richard Wagner coined these as “melos”.
In “Eclipse (Ashley)”, “Just Let Me”, and frequent other moments throughout the album, melos are utilized. Thay are in Standell-Preston vocal experimentation, in mesmerizing synths loops as they chart a course through unrelated keys and unfamiliar harmonies, and in jittering and glistening arpeggiations that ebb and flow throughout the record. Melos and texture are of such strong importance on Shadow Offering. Braids mastery can make you feel as though you are sinking physically and emotionally or boil your blood in the same song (“Upheaval II”).
There is no way to avoid categorizing Shadow Offering as an album of mixed success. The final 15 minutes are an unexpected combination of experiments that miss the mark and uninspiring and frankly forgettable songs. However, this doesn’t mean that the album should be cast aside. Lead single “Young Buck” and the beautifully vulnerable “Fear of Men” are in my list of favorite songs of the year so far. Overall the craftsmanship and musicality across the album are excellent. While the experimentation of “Snow Angel” is difficult to overlook, the album that precedes it is excellent. As Braids’ approach to music-making and lyricism continues to explore new musical avenues, Shadow Offering shows some great promise as well as some lessons to be learned.