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In their fifteen-plus years as a band, American heavy merchants Baroness have really been through some shit. Horrific accidents, debilitating physical injuries, and the constant drain of mental health and numerous line-up changes have all contributed to the scar tissue surrounding the group. Their previous full-length release, 2015’s exceptional ‘Purple’, was an album born out of personal tragedy that saw a seismic shift in the band’s personnel, with a completely overhauled rhythm section. Twelve years on from their supercharged debut ‘Red Album’ in 2007, vocalist/guitarist John Dyer Baizley remains as the band’s conceptual mastermind and sole original member.
And yet, for every sucker punch low dealt, a lofty high arrives. Their second full-length album, the transcendent ‘Blue Record’ (2009), is often touted as one of the best modern metal albums ever created. In 2010, Baroness were lucky fortunate enough to land support slots for Metallica on their Australia and New Zealand tour, thrusting them firmly into the limelight of mainstream metal. They graced the cover of Decibel numerous times, and in 2017, lead single ‘Shock Me’ from ‘Purple’ received a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance (alongside acts like Gojira, Periphery and Korn; ultimately losing out to thrash royalty, Megadeth).
So, reading the press release for the group’s fifth album, ‘Gold & Grey’ – the final release in their twelve-year long cycle of chromatically-influenced records – I wasn’t surprised to find Baizley echoing this sentiment of oscillating uncertainty:
“We dug incredibly deep, challenged ourselves and recorded a record I’m positive we could never again replicate… We’re all extremely excited for this release, which includes quite a few ‘firsts’ for the band, and we’re thrilled to be back on tour to play these psychotic songs for our fans. Expect some surprises.”
Shit, given their history, that might as well be the band’s mantra at this point.
Listening to ‘Gold & Grey’, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was another double-album effort like 2012’s expansive ‘Yellow & Green’. All the obvious signs are there: colour contrast in the title, themes and lyrics; an imposing track list; a neat cleaving into A/B/C sides; and the vast array of sonic extremes on display, with elements of psychedelia, kraut-rock, jazz, black metal and electronica creeping in around the edges. But you’d also be wrong. As Baizley himself admits, right up until mastering, the album was conceptually called ‘Orange’ until a light-bulb moment led to a last-minute title change, one that felt more “sophisticated” and more “on-message” with the album. Considering Baizley’s perfectionism as a meticulous visual artist (he’s responsible for the band’s stunning album artwork, among other notable projects for Kvelertak, Darkest Hour, Skeletonwitch, and more), I’m not surprised there was some hesitation in classification, as this also directly parallels my own personal listening experience of the record.
Where ‘Purple’ felt brief and self-contained as a concise statement of rebirth, ‘Gold & Grey’ feels wild and free, almost playful, completely unhinged from the band’s discography. While the sonic textures of the record definitely borrow from previous album – the molten sludge of ‘Red Album’; ‘Yellow & Green’s juxtaposition of lush soundscapes and straight-forward rock balladry; the winding Southern licks of ‘Blue Record’; ‘Purple’s explosive dynamics – the difference here all comes down to the composition and sequencing.
Side A opener ‘Front Toward Enemy’ bursts into the mix like its Claymore namesake, with a nasty down-tuned riff and shrill, high-end shrapnel. This is quickly followed by the mid-tempo crawl of ‘I’m Already Gone’, punctuated by drummer Sebastian Thomson’s snare hits and heavy-handed use of reverse gated reverb ear its end. Single ‘Seasons’ finds Baroness unfurling the album’s first true banger, with some flexing on the scale from new axe-slinger Gina Gleason and an injection of frost-bitten blast-beats from Thomson in the bridge. Album highlight ‘Tourniquet’ begins with Baizley’s melancholic clean register soaring over soft acoustic plucking, strengthened in time by bassist Nick Jost’s formidable bottom-end rumble, before the song properly builds into an impressive, towering crescendo. Here, as well as elsewhere on the record, Gleason’s backing vocals add some much-needed depth to Baizley’s croon, particularly on such an emotionally fragile chorus: “I’ve got an artificial heart/It beats but I can’t feel a thing. It’s an unofficial part/It bleeds but I’m already gone.”
Across Sides B & C of the record, Baroness mostly stick to this formula, following a similar pattern albeit with some bumps along the way. ‘Throw Me An Anchor’ benefits from a huge, stadium-ready chorus, recalling the triumphant heights of the ‘Yellow & Green’ gem, ‘Take My Bones Away’. As the track draws to a close, a full-blown psychedelic maelstrom sets in, with high pitched, echoed vocals and producer Dave Fridmann’s brittle mix completely overwhelming the high end. With ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Cold-Blooded Angels’, the pace of ‘Gold & Grey’ grinds to a halt with a focus on slow burn balladry. The former track highlights Baizley’s earnest lyricism, as he ruminates on loneliness and his own mortality, while the latter features some angelic guest vocals from Baizley’s own daughter, Isabela, and powers through toward a strong finish. Thankfully the record’s back-end gets some much needed oomph (informal nouns are still nouns, okay?), with the driving rhythm section of ‘Broken Halo’ and the flaming lead riff that cuts through the mid-section of ‘Borderlines’, setting the roaring bridge ablaze.
However, with ‘Gold & Grey’ coming in at 17 tracks deep and steadfastly presenting itself as not a double album, the unnecessary inclusion of filler is an obvious drawback. The album features six instrumentals and only two appear to have any thematic merit to the larger record. ‘Sevens’ is a beautiful melodic interlude and ‘Anchor’s Lament’ uses delicate string arrangements with violin and viola to great effect. However, those two aside, the rest just feel pointless and meandering: the intermittent fuzz and crackle of ‘Blankets Of Ash’; ‘Can Oscura’s brief burst of drum and bass; the slightly warped guitar riff of ‘Crooked Mile’; and the meditative background music of ‘Assault On East Falls’.
It’s clear that Baroness have continued to take risks on their fifth album, refusing to be defined by their past and embracing the potential for a new era. While ‘Gold & Grey’ is being hailed elsewhere as the group’s masterpiece, I feel that that’s perhaps a little too strong a statement. The record’s overall composition feels directionless at times, lacking the refined purpose of ‘Blue Record’ or ‘Purple’, and the track sequencing itself feels bloated with distracting filler. However, when the band fires on all creative cylinders, they manage to unfurl a collection of hook-laden, rock’n’roll bangers strong enough to rival the very best in their back catalogue.
In the process of writing this review, I had the gradual realisation that Baroness have been making albums for about as long as I’ve been an adult human. And, to be real for a second, over those twelve years we’ve both been through some heavy shit. In the same way that I can look back and reflect on how my own life has turned out, ‘Gold & Grey’ embodies Baroness’ path of growth and maturity, their recurrent musical evolution and whatever else might come next.
- Front Toward Enemy
- I’m Already Gone
- Anchor’s Lament
- Throw Me An Anchor
- I’d Do Anything
- Blankets of Ash
- Emmett – Radiating Light
- Cold-Blooded Angels
- Crooked Mile
- Broken Halo
- Can Oscura
- Assault On East Falls
- Pale Sun
‘Gold & Grey’ is out now via Abraxan Hymns/Cooking Vinyl Australia – find physical & digital copies here.