Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Baroness Gold & Grey

Four months from now — four months from this Thursday, to be specific — Baroness’ Blue Record will turn 10. I don’t know if that’s an anniversary we’ll celebrate on Stereogum, but it’s one worth mentioning. And I’m old enough that I don’t need an album’s birthday to make me feel old, but this one makes me keenly aware of how quickly the last decade has passed. I remember this like it was yesterday.

Blue Record was Baroness’ second full-length release. It came out on October 13, 2009. Baroness were featured on the cover of the November 2009 issue of Decibel — the American magazine that tends to be considered “The Paper Of Record” for post-millennial metal — and in that issue was the magazine’s review of Blue Record. It was awarded a 10/10 score. Decibel is not a notoriously easy grader; perfect scores are fairly rare occurrences in its pages. But Blue Record deserved it.

In 2009, Baroness were a relatively young band — especially in the world of metal, where anything that happened after 1990 is viewed with suspicion. Baroness had come up in the Georgia sludge-metal scene, just ahead of Black Tusk, but solidly behind Mastodon and Kylesa, both of whom were at the four-album mark by the time Blue Record dropped. Further complicating maters, in some circles, Baroness frontman John Baizley was (and still is) more renowned for his astonishing, epoch-defining visual art than his music — a not-unreasonable assessment, as he’s done work for roughly 30% of the world’s active metal bands (including Metallica!). Baroness were spiritual descendants of acts like Sleep and Kyuss — and thus, obviously, Black Sabbath — but sometimes written off as purveyors of so-called “hipster metal,” a pejorative broadly applied to a large number of upstart American bands at the time.

Comparisons were mostly useless, however, and ad-hominem disses didn’t stick. Baroness were never the biggest or heaviest band, never the fastest or slowest band, never the prettiest or gnarliest band, never even the catchiest or coolest band. But just the same, from the start, Baroness were the band. They were plenty big and heavy. They could do fast and slow, pretty and gnarly. They were just catchy enough, and just cool enough. If you were projecting or predicting, Baroness were the band you’d bet on, the band you’d dream on.

And I mean from the start. Baroness’ first-ever interview anywhere — before they even had a press kit — was in the October 2005 issue of Decibel. The band’s inaugural releases — 2004’s First and 2005’s Second EPs — were strong enough to score the band a deal with international heavyweight Relapse Records. Baroness’ Relapse-released full-length debut, Red Album, was named 2007’s album of the year by Revolver. So two years later, when Blue Record arrived to more generous accolades still, they felt entirely earned. Two issues after the 10/10 review, when Decibel published its list of the 40 best “extreme” albums of 2009, Blue Record was at #1. As Andrew Bonazelli wrote in that Blue Record capsule:

The raging mathlete sludge of First and Second yielded a more studied approach on Red, which in turn allowed for this startling breakout. And, soon, more quantifiable success.

“Soon” meaning “in the future” and “quantifiable success” meaning “actual stardom (or something resembling actual stardom).” Blue Record was supposed to be the beginning of Baroness, not their crescendo, not their magnum opus, not their peak. In 2010 — about six months after the release of Blue Record — Baroness signed an agreement to be represented by Q Prime management, and almost immediately afterward, the band was playing arenas in Australia with Q Prime’s highest-profile clients: Metallica. Think about that. Up till that point, Baroness had never had any management. Then, they released Blue Record, and all of a sudden, they were getting phone calls from Q Prime founder Cliff Burnstein and opening up for the biggest metal band of all time. As former Baroness guitarist Pete Adams told [checks notes] fishing world.com.au:

This guy [Burnstein] broke Rush, and the Scorpions and Def Leppard … I mean this guy’s resumé is ridiculous … what he’s done for the world of music in the last 35 or 40 years is incredible. It’s a real pleasure to be working with a good team of people who really care about your band. The one thing about Q Prime that I really like is that they don’t take on random bands and they don’t have a long list of them. They only work with a handful of bands that they care about.

This was the beginning, the bottom of the mountain. It was! For a bunch of reasons, though, Baroness spent the better part of the next 10 years not climbing toward the summit, but watching it vanish from view. The thing everybody remembers and points to (and rightfully so) is the bus crash. That happened in August 2012, while Baroness were touring for their first post-breakout LP. The bus crash was a fucking nightmare, a tragedy. Baroness’ rhythm section left the band after that. Baizley underwent an extensive, excruciating-sounding physical-rehabilitation process just so he could move his fingers enough to relearn how to play guitar. It’s a miracle he survived, and a testament to his work ethic and dedication that he came back.

Bookending the bus crash, though, were a pair of albums — and this is gonna sound terrible, I know, which is why I’m telling you as much before I even say it — that failed to live up to the promise of Red and Blue and First and Second. In 2012, Baroness released the double-album Yellow & Green, which was big, but it wasn’t a big move in any particular direction. It was more music, but less Baroness. It didn’t suck — because Baroness have too much self-awareness and skill to suck — but it felt immediately to me like the least essential, most exhausting album in their catalog, and even today I’d rate it as the single weakest release in the Baroness discography.

In 2015, after Baizley had built himself back into fighting shape, Baroness released Purple: their first album with the new rhythm section — drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist Nick Jost — and their first with the high-profile psych-rock producer Dave Fridmann. Purple has two of Baroness’ best-ever songs (“Chlorine + Wine” and “Shock Me”), but it’s the shortest Baroness album and the one that feels lightest. So here’s the score: Yellow & Green is OK, and Purple is pretty good, sometimes great, but put either one next to anything that precedes ‘em and … I dunno, man, it doesn’t even seem like a fair fight.

After Purple, Baroness’ longtime guitarist Pete Adams left the band — replaced by new axe slinger Gina Gleason — and Baizley relocated the whole operation from Savannah to Philadelphia. That’s where Gold & Grey came together. That’s where we are now. I’ve written a bunch about Gold & Grey already, and if you’ve read any of that stuff, you know already that I love the album. If you haven’t read any of that stuff, I’m comfortable telling you upfront: I love the album.

If you’ve been following Baroness for the past decade, though, you know it’s pretty close to impossible to hear Gold & Grey without attaching to it some of your own emotions, experiences, and expectations. Ultimately, that’s how you’ll judge the music. It’s unfair, though, for me to assess the music here without taking into account the artist’s vision and ambition. As a shortcut to serving both masters, then, I’ve pulled quotes from a couple truly excellent recent interviews with Baizley — conducted by Revolver and Decibel, respectively, and both published this past April — and reacted to those with my own feedback. There is a lot of feedback in these songs; here’s some feedback on them.

BAIZLEY: Up until I think the day before we mastered the record, we were calling it Orange. We assumed that’s what the title was going to be. I was at a loss for how to call it Orange — I didn’t think it was going to be a good title. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. It doesn’t give me a good image. Right before we went into master, I was listening to our record and I noticed there are several lines of lyrics that either say “Gold & Grey,” rhyme with it or sound very similar to that phrase. In a way, I think it would be cool if everybody still referred to it as Orange, but Gold & Grey seemed like a more sophisticated way of putting it. It was, honestly, a lot more on-message with the album. It’s a fairly long album. It’s not a double record, but that dual-titling thing seemed appropriate.

Few things here:

1. I’m not calling into question Baizley’s feelings about color — the dude is an incredible visual artist, an ultra-perfectionist with a scientist’s eye for microscopic detail and a ridiculous portfolio. But Orange doesn’t give him a good image? Dude … like, there is a fairly well-known and cultishly beloved maker of amplifiers named Orange whose verified users include Jimmy Page, Iron Maiden, Rush, Mastodon, Sleep, Bob Weir, Deftones, and Crowbar PLUS Kvelertak and Skeletonwitch and Red Fang (all three of whom have released albums with Baizley-created cover art) PLUS a billion others including: the legendary stoner-metal band ORANGE GOBLIN. There’s literally no color in the rainbow more famously associated with the style of music played by Baroness than Orange, unless you maybe wanna include Pink (as in Floyd) or Black (as in Sabath), neither of which are actually in the rainbow. I’m not saying he’s wrong to go with Gold & Grey instead of Orange, I’m just saying it is HILARIOUS that he chose to go with Gold & Grey instead of Orange.

2. It makes me crazy that he called it Gold & Grey rather than Gold & Gray. Gray is the name of a color. Grey is the name of a tea. If you’re typing out lyrics from Gold & Grey songs such as “I’d Do Anything” or “Broken Halos,” the correct spelling is “gold and gray.”

3. Why is it not a double album? It’s not a single album. If you buy the vinyl, it comes on two discs, three sides of which include music, the fourth featuring an etching by Baizley. It breaks really naturally into two halves, four sides; it breaks really weirdly into three sides and an etching. Is it, like, an album and a half? It’s just a weird choice. Means nothing, though. Moving on…

BAIZLEY: I know I take everything so freaking seriously and I intellectualize things to a degree that’s not necessary. But I do try to include some inside jokes and I’ve always tried to bring some element from every member of our band and put it into the album cover so that it never feels this is just, like, a one-man show. Artistically, I want to make sure that our audience is aware that this isn’t about my art, this is about our art. It’s about our shared experience. More importantly, it’s about the experience that we share with the people who are adventurous enough to call themselves fans of the band.

I think all this — all this, in general — is cool as hell, and it makes me feel even better about rooting for and sticking with Baroness, a band that’s always been easy to root for and stick with. But I wanted to focus on this part specifically:

I’ve always tried to bring some element from every member of our band and put it into the album cover so that it never feels this is just, like, a one-man show. Artistically, I want to make sure that our audience is aware that this isn’t about my art, this is about our art. It’s about our shared experience.

Baizley is Baroness. No two Baroness albums feature the same lineup, and the entire band, aside from Baizley, has been turned over at least twice. Baroness have worked closely with three producers — Philip Cope on the first two EPs and Red Album, John Congleton on Blue Record and Yellow & Green, Dave Fridmann on Purple and Gold & Grey — all of whom have cast Baroness in radically different lights. And yet: Baroness always feel like a band, and Baroness’ albums always feel like collective efforts, and that’s never been more true than it is on Gold & Grey. I can’t isolate the contributions of new guitarist Gina Gleason, because I’m never sure whether it’s her or Baizley playing at any particular point, but the guitars throughout Gold & Grey sound radically different than they ever have on any previous Baroness release: They’re shreddy and clipped and hard and blistering, as opposed to elegant and open and flowing. I love both styles, but this feels a whole lot harder than the Baroness of old. (Gleason sings backup a bunch, too, and adds a lot to the songs in that capacity as well.)

The other two guys in the band — drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist Nick Jost — are very often at the front of the mix, giving Gold & Grey the feel of a noise album, or a dub album, or a noise-dub album. No joke: I wrote the words “Primal Scream” at least half a dozen times in my notes. The version of Primal Scream I’m talking about here is the post-Britpop band that made Vanishing Point, XTRMNTR, and Evil Heat. Those are heavy, scary, hallucinatory albums, and that’s what Gold & Grey sounds like.

BAIZLEY: With this record, we were like, “let’s use elements of conventional songwriting, but let’s also use elements of all the styles of music that we like throughout history.” I mean that real broadly, like, “let’s take the elements of metal that we like, let’s take the elements of black metal that we like — electronic music, jazz — you name it. But let’s re-contextualize it all” … I can’t wait for people to hear this record, mainly because I’m curious about what kind of music people think it is. I don’t know what kind of music it is anymore.

It’s hard to answer that question. Gold & Grey still sounds like Baroness, but it sounds almost nothing like any previous Baroness record. I’d call this music psychedelic, prog, post-rock, ambient … I’d apply to it many of the same adjectives I used when writing about Pallbearer’s 2017 level-up behemoth Heartless, but where those songs had radically weird, crazily diagrammed structures, most of these songs feel almost primal, if not archetypal, in their construction. And yet others — like the album’s soaring lead single “Borderlines” — have more changes building to higher peaks than fucking Rush or something.

BAIZLEY: One thing that was missing from Purple was the kind of stripped-down acoustic song that we’ve had at least one of on every other record. We had this really powerful experience last summer when Sebastian had to very suddenly leave our European tour to go attend to some urgent matters in New York. It was something he absolutely had to do. Rather than cancel shows, we decided to just wing it and do our remaining shows with a synthesizer, a Fender Rhodes and acoustic guitars. They were among the most powerful shows I’ve ever played … For me, it was a huge moment. It occurred to me that we could do that in the studio, but not in that typical “let’s put a soft song on the album” way that we’d done in the past. The change was that we tried to give each song the best possible representation we could, even if that meant pulling out everything but the vocal.

This is where Gold & Grey really buries me. The acoustic opening of “Tourniquet”; the whole of “I’d Do Anything”; pretty much the entire second half of the album, frankly. These songs get quiet and small and sad and ghostly in ways that prior iterations of Baroness couldn’t touch. Baizley has always been an artist, obviously, but he’s never made art like this.

BAIZLEY: I’ve had a fuckin’ shitty past couple years. Let’s just put it that way. I mean, it’s all obvious stuff, mainly that I got hurt real bad and it’s never going away … I’m not going to explain what the past six years have been like, but for every good thing there was the double edge of that sword — contending with the subtler, more nuanced realization that of course I’m happy I survived but I also have to deal with all the aftereffects stretched out over a very long timeline. I’m super-fucking grateful that I have music to share those thoughts that I don’t wanna share in a non-poetic way or in a non-musical way … That’s what I deal in lyrically when I make records. And it’s obvious on this record.

I’m kinda happy to read this, to be honest, because when I was listening close to Gold & Grey, taking notes for this review, I started to worry that Baizley was in a deeply bad, dark, dangerous place. It’s not my place to project anything or protect anyone, I know, but listening to these lyrics reminded me of when I was writing about Elliott Smith back in 2012. I remember feeling really shitty for not entirely hearing those lyrics when I listened to them the first time around, when Smith was still alive. I started to wonder if I should be worrying about Baizley the same way. It’s a relief to know that’s not necessary. It’s no fun to hear that one of your favorite artists has “had a fuckin’ shitty past couple years,” but it’s helpful to hear he’s just airing it out, not crying for help. Because a lot of this stuff sounds like a cry for help.

BAIZLEY: This [album] was just a bunch of, like, weird music. A couple songs are all improv. There’s a couple songs we wrote in the studio. There are songs where I don’t play guitar, but Nick does, and Nick doesn’t play piano, but I do. There are some weird role reversals. It’s a weird record. But I love it.

Man, it is a WEIRD record. It has some of the strangest textures and tones and choices I’ve encountered on any metal album, ever, and I’ve listened to some weird-ass metal albums in my day. But I love it, too.

REVOLVER: HOW DO YOU FEEL COMPLETING THE COLOR CYCLE WITH BARONESS?

BAIZLEY: [Pauses] I have very mixed emotions about it right now. It’s been such a huge part of the past 12 years of my life that sending it off and feeling like I’ve finished something is a really daunting concept for me. With everything else, I feel like this band is just continuing to evolve. It’s such a big part of me at this point, that it’s really hard for me to let go of that idea. It’s also really necessary, because it’s been exhausting to have stuck to such a particular idea for such a long time. To be working on one concept for 12 years, it’s ridiculous. But that’s also how I do everything.

This is why I love the guy. I mean, I love him for a bunch of reasons, obviously, but this is at the core of ‘em all. Baizley dedicated a dozen years of his adult life to making albums inspired by the color spectrum, and he finishes it by saying, “it’s been exhausting … it’s ridiculous. But that’s also how I do everything.” If everybody did everything the way Baizley does, we’d have a whole lot more great art in the world. Beyond that, though, I’m happy to hear that he feels like he’s finished this. He can move on to bigger, different, more ridiculous concepts and projects. Because in many ways, Gold & Grey feels like the birth of a whole new Baroness — not the fulfillment of old promises, but the birth of new possibilities. It’s intoxicating for me to imagine where he’ll take it from here. For right now, as far as I’m concerned, here is perfect.

BAIZLEY: When we were 75% of the way through the record, I knew it was going to be cool, that it was going to be good and that we were going to fulfill that one necessary objective: not to repeat our last album. I was positive we had done that. But also, one thing occurred to me — something that’s still with me. Everybody always says their latest record is the best record they’ve ever done. I’ve said that to you before. I’ve said that to lots of people. I have no idea of how many times I’ve said it or how many people I’ve said it to. Well, I’m not going to say Gold & Grey is necessarily the best record we’ve ever done. I’m simply not going to say it.

I’ll say it: Gold & Grey is the best thing Baroness have ever done. Baroness have never done anything bad, they’ve never done anything worse than mediocre-to-decent, but prior to this, Blue Record was the best thing they’d ever done. That was 10 years ago, and it was great, but it was just the end of the beginning. This is the end of all that, and the start of something totally different and new. Now, Baizley’s got a limitless palette and blank canvas in front of him. And with Gold & Grey, he’s got a masterpiece behind him.

Gold & Grey is out 6/14 on Abraxan Hymns. It’s streaming in advance here and up for pre-order here.

Other albums of note out this week:
• Bill Callahan’s ode to domestic bliss Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest.
• Bruce Springsteen’s long-awaited return Western Stars.
• Madonna’s pop-opera concept album Madame X.
• Meeernaa’s vast, dreamy Heart Hunger.
• Crumb’s loungey psych-rock set Jinx.
• Personal Best’s power-pop rager What You At.
• Claire Cronin’s poetry-turned-songs Big Dread Moon.
• Iron & Wine + Calexico’s collaborative rustic Years To Burn.
• Chastity Belt member Julia Shapiro’s solo debut Perfect Version.
• Ava Luna’s glassy, stylized Pigments EP.
• The indie-psych-heavy Self Discovery For Social Survival Soundtrack.

Tags: Baroness