[3 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Ever since its inception, metal music has always been built around various extremes, be it volume, darkness, grandiosity, or aggression, but as the genre heads into its fifth decade, so many bands continue to push the proverbial envelope that it’s always shocking when one decides to actually pull on the reins a little. And when we do see a band exercise a little subtlety, it tends to be from a veteran act, one with enough skill and songwriting savvy to pull it off and still manage to sound as potent as ever. Top tier extreme bands like Neurosis, Slayer, Carcass, Death, Emperor, and Mastodon have all opened up their sounds to certain degrees without compromising, but it was always a gradual evolution, often coming years after exploding onto the scene with more blunt, forceful statements of intent. To exercise restraint while retaining one’s credibility in the metal community is a tall order for any band, but in the case of a relative newcomer, it rarely happens. When it does, though, people take notice.
Savannah, Georgia foursome Baroness has steadily been building word of mouth among the underground set over the last couple years, thanks to a pair of well-received EPs that combined the progressive tendencies of Mastodon and early Isis with a strong crust punk and stoner rock influence, a straightforward sound that, for all its rough-hewn bluntness and extended jams, exuded plenty of dexterity and accessibility. There was enough early buzz to get the band signed to Relapse, and the 2007 release of A Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk, a split CD with fellow Savannah sludgers Unpersons, got the ball rolling even more, to the point where the band’s debut full-length had quickly become one of the year’s most anticipated releases. And not only does The Red Album live up to the hype, but the way Baroness has so quickly transformed its sound in such a short time frame is absolutely remarkable.
The word “understated” is rarely applied to a metal record, but it fits The Red Album to a tee. On the surface, this album is simple, the influences easy to pinpoint. We can hear the spacious strains of Isis and the blunt primal quality of Neurosis. We can spot the little technical flourishes and sludgy chords that define Mastodon’s distinct sound. We hear harmonies and riffs that come straight out of classic New Wave of British Heavy Metal. A strong Southern rock element lingers throughout the album, and dare I say, a little indie rock as well, as some moments are reminiscent of Built to Spill’s ragged, Crazy Horse-inspired approach. What Baroness does so brilliantly here is find a comfortable niche ensconced between all these differing styles, and with the help of some damn fine songwriting, and a willingness by guitarist John Baizley to incorporate stronger melodies into his lead vocals, the whole shebang packs a wallop like few other metal releases in 2007.
Consequently, the beginning of the album couldn’t be more appropriate. Instead of starting with a big overture, an ironic acoustic intro, or jumping out of the gate with a breakneck riff, “Rays on Pinion” sounds like a shy band slowly starting on a small club stage. Innocent sounding drones fade in, followed by tentative chiming notes by Baizley and guitarist Brian Blickle, as drummer Allen Blickle adds some seemingly hesitant cymbals. Then from out of nowhere, like something off Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, the primary riff kicks in, sounding far more upbeat and optimistic than we expected, the foursome, including bassist Summer Welch, starting to gel. After a little Southern jam band flourish three minutes into the track, the main riff takes a turn toward the darker side, volume increasing, and nearly four minutes into the song, we’re off to the races, Baizley spouting enigmatic lyrics in a throaty rasp that manages to carry a deceptively contagious melody, as staccato riffs and dual harmonies enter the fray. As an opening track, it’s phenomenal, evolving from virtually nothing into an all-out barnstormer.
“The Birthing” continues right where “Pinion” leaves off, the band’s instrumental prowess stepping into the foreground during the extended solo break, while “Isak” emerges as the album’s catchiest track, constructed around a snappy descending dual guitar lick, a deliberate-but-not-slow 6/8 swagger giving the song a massive weight. The middle section of the album takes a turn toward the slightly mellower, as Allen Blickle’s tense drum fills provide an effective contrast to the ambient drones of “Wailing Wintry Wind” and the folk-inspired acoustic guitar twiddling of “Cockroach en Fleur” provides more atmosphere, but the band emerges with all barrels firing on the rampaging “Aleph”, whose flamboyance rivals such Mastodon tracks as “Circle of Cysquatch” and “Crystal Skull”. In direct contrast to “Aleph”‘s complexity and the pastoral beauty of closing instrumental “O’Appalachia”, the rousing “Grad” is the kind of fist-pumper we heard countless times in the ‘80s and never tired of, Baizley shouting, “Raise your voices!”, and the foursome settling into a wicked groove, anchored by Welch’s one-note bassline.
While labelmates Pig Destroyer have put out the year’s most innovative metal album, and High on Fire has given us a staggering display of power on their own new one, it’s Baroness that has the potential to rake in the most sales of any current Relapse release, thanks in large part to its restraint. By pulling back just enough, Baroness’s music has become much warmer and melodic, yet the band’s visceral power remains fully intact. The end result: a CD that has had metal fans drooling for weeks already, and has the potential to appeal to a much broader audience, from indie scenesters to admirers of good, catchy guitar-based rock. In a world that loves auspicious debuts, this is one with the potential to galvanize listeners across the board.