The Anniversary

Yellow & Green Turns 10

Relapse
2012
Relapse
2012

As the summer of 2012 began, the Savannah, Georgia art-metal quartet Baroness were on the verge of an artistic and commercial breakthrough. Less than two months later, there were very serious questions about whether they would continue to exist at all. Yellow & Green, Baroness’ third full-length, which turns 10 this Sunday, should have been a triumphant fanfare as they arrived at the top of the mountain to stand alongside Mastodon as the future of Southern heavy rock. Instead, it almost destroyed them.

Baroness was formed in 2003 by guitarist/singer John Dyer Baizley, second guitarist Tim Loose, bassist Summer Welch, and drummer Allen Blickle. That lineup made two EPs (First and Second) and half of a split with Unpersons. Loose left and was replaced by Blickle’s brother Brian; that lineup recorded Red Album, the group’s first full-length and Relapse Records debut. By 2009’s Blue Record, Brian Blickle was out, replaced by Pete Adams.

The frequent membership changes mirrored the evolution of the band’s music. Those early EPs were fairly undistinguished psychedelic sludge; if you liked other Savannah bands like Red Fang, Kylesa, and Black Tusk, Baroness would have felt familiar but hardly revelatory. On Red Album, though, things clicked in a big way. The songs were less anchored and more airy; Baizley’s voice could soar, it turned out, and their guitars frequently rang out when lesser bands might have stuck to a post-grunge roar. Perhaps just as importantly, Baizley’s visual art — which always adorned Baroness releases — had blossomed into a kind of Aubrey Beardsley fantasy world of half-naked Victorian-looking young women surrounded by birds and flowers. Blue Record (on which the naked women were surrounded by fish and undersea plant life) was an incremental but noticeable step forward, and the bonus disc packaged with the first run of CDs, recorded at the Roadburn festival, proved that they were a kick-ass live band, too. Baizley became an in-demand cover artist, painting covers for albums by Kvelertak, Pig Destroyer, Darkest Hour, Skeletonwitch, Torche, Kylesa, and even Gillian Welch.

After their first two albums, Baroness had become an extremely hard-touring act, but they consciously chose to take a year off to write album number three, which was how Yellow & Green became what it is: a sprawling, 75-minute double CD. In an interview with the Aquarian Weekly, Baizley said, “Very, very, very quickly into the [writing] process it was dreadfully apparent to us that we were going to have a ton of songs on our hands. Meaning, before a month was out, we had more than an album written. After two months we have probably three albums worth of stuff written.” They started with 30 songs and wound up with 18.

Baizley didn’t want to deliver a bloated monstrosity of a CD, though. “I saw the problem with having 75 minutes worth of music being that if you put it on one CD, after 45 minutes, 50 minutes, the listener’s ears are going to be incredibly worn through… so we decided that, because we had to do it somehow, we would break the record into two very manageable-length records. Just by virtue of the fact that there’s two CDs, you’re given an intermission. Physically, mentally, the act of taking one CD out and putting another CD in means you’re giving yourself a break. Whether that break is the length of time it takes to take one CD out and put the other one in, or 24-48 hours later, it doesn’t matter. You need that break in there.”

As befitting its bifurcated title and physical splitting in two, Yellow & Green (which was recorded without Welch; Baizley played bass) really does feel like two albums packaged together. After the short opening instrumental “Yellow Theme,” the first disc is studded with galloping rock songs, including the first single, “Take My Bones Away,” and “Sea Lungs,” but there’s a strong element of psychedelia and, perhaps even more surprisingly, late ’70s/early ’80s AOR rock that pops up more frequently than you’d expect. “Little Things” is built on a disco groove, and “Cocainium” sounds like Baroness attempting radio-friendly prog — including a melancholy David Gilmour-esque guitar intro and shimmering, spacy Blue Öyster Cult/Alan Parsons Project keyboards — but it also features one of the album’s hardest, crunchiest riffs. It ends with the nearly seven-minute “Eula,” a stomping, melancholy track that concludes with nearly a minute of almost Sonic Youth-ish guitar noise. It’s very much like the band is saying, “OK, that’s it. Take a break and come back.”

In that same Aquarian Weekly interview, Baizley said, “The initial idea we had… was to release two records that were fairly stark in their differences… But once we started trying to apply those ideas, it seemed a little heavy-handed.” So while the second disc, “Green,” is different from “Yellow,” it’s not radically different. It, too, starts with a short instrumental, then launches into a big rocker, but “Board Up The House” is a slow stomper with a wailing, wave-your-arms chorus and huge, processed drums that recall OK Computer-era Radiohead. In fact, there’s a lot of early Radiohead (and Flaming Lips) audible on this disc. Every element of “Foolsong” is individually swathed in reverb, until it’s all a giant shimmering cloud; “Collapse” is a kind of psychedelic dub, with sequenced synths replacing riffs (a gently picked acoustic guitar eventually rises out of the mix); “Stretchmarker” lays more acoustic guitars over a slow programmed thump. “The Line Between” is the most traditionally Baroness rock song on the disc, but it comes right before the closing instrumental, the almost Bill Frisell-ish “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry.”

Yellow & Green was, and is, a musical triumph. It should have sold better than its predecessors, allowed Baroness to tour successfully, and generally raised them to the next level as a great 21st century American rock band. A major label might have plucked them away from Relapse, as Warner/Reprise had done with Mastodon. But less than a month after the album’s release, on August 15, Baroness’ tour bus lost its brakes and slid off a viaduct while traveling downhill near Bath, England, falling 30 feet. John Baizley’s left arm and left leg were broken; Allen Blickle and touring bassist Matt Maggioni suffered fractured vertebrae. Peter Adams was only slightly injured, and was out of the hospital the next day.

In October 2012, Baizley posted an extended description of the accident and the aftermath. It’s horrifying to read; I’ll just quote this part:

Most people who have been in accidents understand the pre-trauma sensation of time slowing down. There were almost two minutes during which I knew we were heading for a collision. It felt like two hours. I remember the sound of the air-brakes failing, and the panicked cursing of our driver as we slowly realized how desperate the situation was. I tried as hard as I could to yell and wake everyone up to prepare for impact. I remember the sounds of confusion from behind me as our collective terror rose. I remember seeing the guardrail split, then a cluster of trees smacking against the front windshield. While we were airborne my eyes met with our driver’s. I knew then that we each shared the same look on our face; and I won’t soon forget it. We had spent enough time in the air to appreciate, make peace with and accept a fate we thought inevitable, and we looked at one another with a horribly silent “goodbye” in our eyes.

He also revealed that his left arm was broken into “seven free-floating pieces,” which had to be “rebuilt with the aid of two massive titanium plates, 20 screws, and a foot-and-a-half of wire.” He spent two weeks immobilized in the hospital, and another three weeks in an apartment in England before his doctor would allow him to board an airplane, thanks to the risk of blood clots. Somewhat miraculously, he was still able to play guitar; “against my logic and reason, when I pick up an instrument, my hand remembers exactly what to do.”

Amazingly, the band was back on the road eight months later. Baizley performed solo and acoustic at South By Southwest in March 2013, and on April 1, the band launched a US tour. The lineup had changed once again, though: Matt Maggioni and Allen Blickle were gone, replaced by Nick Jost and Trans Am’s Sebastian Thomson, respectively. (They’re still with the group as of 2022, though guitarist Pete Adams left in 2017. He was replaced by Gina Gleason, who is also still in the band as of this writing.)

Yellow & Green is the line that divides Baroness’ first decade from its second. The differences between its first and second discs — their heavy, stomping side that earned them their fan base and the more introspective, even melancholy material that pointed to a potential future path (though they didn’t ultimately take it, as 2015’s Purple and 2019’s Gold & Grey prove) — are divisive in their own way, too. But 10 years later, heard outside the context of the horrifying accident that failed to destroy them, it stands up as one of the best heavy rock records of the 2010s, full stop.

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