Whether or not Black Skies had Richard Strauss in mind when they put together the introduction of “Lifeblood” that opens their second full-length, Circadian Meditations, I don’t know, but there’s a definite resemblance to that composer’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” AKA the main theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That would be fitting as well with the North Carolina three-piece’s space-themed artwork and the overall more psychedelic approach that comes up throughout the album, but life is rarely that neat. Still, the Circadian Meditations opener arrives with enough circumstance to make the actual start of the song feel like an event, and as the rest of the 37-minute LP plays out, it gets easier to think of it that way. “Lifeblood” is the longest track on the record at 10:08 (immediate points), and together with closer “The Dusk/Invisible Fingers” (9:21), forms an apparent bookend around shorter songs that had me searching the final moments for similar crashes and guitar noise. I didn’t find them, but what was there satisfied anyway, as does entirety of Circadian Meditations, as the Black Skies core duo of bassist/vocalist Michelle Temple and guitarist/vocalist Kevin Clark (also synth and shruti box drones) — joined here by drummer John Crouch, imported from somewhat likeminded North Carolinian outfit Caltrop in apparent place of Tim Herzog, who played on 2011′s On the Wings of Time debut LP — have gracefully expanded their aesthetic reach without sacrificing either the spaciousness of the recording (helmed like the last one by Kyle Spence of Harvey Milk) or losing the impact of the songs to excessive indulgences. Not that the album doesn’t have any, it’s just that as Temple and Clark trade vocal lines back and forth once “Lifeblood” gets underway, they’re quick to engage with warm tones, hypnotic riff repetitions and the aforementioned vocal tradeoffs. The sense of movement is palpable throughout “Lifeblood” — knowing his work in Caltrop, part of that credit has to go to Crouch – and still the band is able to hone in on a contemplative, exploratory feel. In that way, the opener sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the album to follow.
A smooth build brings “Lifeblood” to an apex topped with wah-soaked guitar leads propelled by Crouch‘s punctuating snare and held steady via Temple‘s rumbling bassline. The rush toward the end, the cycles it goes through, sound a bit like space rock, but that’s a designation that would seem to pull away from the earthiness of their tones, which isn’t to be understated. “Celestial Coronation,” which follows the opener, features one of the album’s best choruses, with shades of what always worked best about Kylesa being repurposed into a structure that loses none of its appeal for telegraphing its moves through the first two verses, whereupon it departs to a brooding instrumental stretch that in turn shifts back first to a solo over the chorus riff and then to the hook itself, rounding out in traditional fashion a construction given a more avant feel by the subdued psychedelic wandering of the last minute-plus which devolves as the drums get softer into a kind of measure-by-measure lull, ultimately ringing out to silence. On a lot of records, this would be standard trickery. The band puts you to sleep in order to wake you up again. Black Skies, to their credit, play it differently. “The Dawn,” which would seem to be the end of a vinyl side A, is a two-minute pastoral exploration led by Clark‘s guitar, and even when Temple and Crouch crash in after about 40 seconds, the serene vibe is maintained, a patient sway holding some tension but keeping steady to a sustained final rumble and another few seconds of quiet. There isn’t a physical pressing of Circadian Meditations yet, though one can only imagine it’s bound for the aforementioned vinyl if not both that and CD (I’ll be the last holdout hoping for CD), but it’s worth noting that the experience of “The Dawn” into “Black C” would be completely different were the album to be broken up onto two sides. In the linear, digital version, it’s a sudden kick after a moment of peace. If one had to flip a record between, to be pulled out of that moment by the physical act might play into the effectiveness of “Black C”‘s swaggering launch.