They might not be the flashiest metal band around, but Baroness is quickly turning into one of America's finest.
Unlike many young bands that need time to find their identity, Baroness arrived five years ago with a fully-formed sound that immediately separated them from the rest of the American metal pack, the early First and Second EPs and the 2007 split with Unpersons, A Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk, subtly morphing from monstrous, sludgy post-metal to the broad, all-encompassing style of 2007's acclaimed Red Album. Theirs is a sound that's difficult to pin down, with traces of mainstream American metal, early 1970s progressive rock, Southern rock, the dissonance of Fugazi, the classic gallop and twin guitar work of Thin Lizzy, and the stripped-down, straightforward approach of a jam-oriented indie rock band, pure heaviness offset by an often startling knack for arresting melodies, either from guitar or John Baizley's robust vocals. For those who are wary of the seeming impenetrability of more extreme-minded contemporary metal, the Red Album was far more welcoming, its openness to sounds outside the genre and ability to integrate everything seamlessly lending itself an inclusive rather than exclusive quality.
Two years later, not much has changed at all on the much-ballyhooed follow-up, at least stylistically speaking. All the same old influences are there, making the aptly titled Blue Record a clear, fitting companion piece to Red Album, but dig a little deeper, and you'll find that while the painting might seem just the same, the palette this time around is far richer. For all of Red Album's merits, spun back to back with Blue, it feels startlingly monochrome in comparison.
It's sometimes a great idea for a metal band to step away from the usual genre producers and work with someone who doesn't exactly specialize in heavier sounds, and John Congleton, whose "heaviest" record was Black Mountain's great 2008 album In the Future, is the perfect person to help orchestrate and arrange Baroness's idiosyncratic sound. And indeed, the first things we notice on Blue Record are the little additions that make the record sound so much more textured than its predecessor. "Steel That Sleeps the Eye" is a brilliant, Moody Blues-inspired acoustic interlude which has warm, layered vocal harmonies crooning vocalist/guitarist John Baizley's psychedelic lyrics, the two and a half minute track segueing perfectly into the more robust, Dischord-infused tones of "Swollen and Halo". The instrumental "Ogeechee Hymnal" is a languorous Southern jam that sounds like it was written by a band living in a place far too warm to bother playing fast. The thunderous, 6/8 pace of "The Sweetest Curse" is countered by a delicate coda of acoustic guitars, while later on, "Blackpowder Orchard" is a gorgeous little piece that hearkens back to the pastoral strains Led Zeppelin III.
Make no mistake, though, at its core Baroness is a pure meat 'n' potatoes hard rock/metal band, and for all the frills, that's where the band's great appeal lies. "Jake Leg" is strikingly upbeat in tone, sounding as if Mastodon and Torche met halfway, intricate harmonies and riffs giving way to strong vocal lines, but unlike the overtly rigid Mastodon, there's an undeniable sense of groove, the guitar noodling kept to a bare minimum, Allen Blickle's drumming propulsive but relaxed, a terrific example of a drummer creating a pocket for the rhythm section. "A Horse Called Golgotha" is as beastly as the title implies, the strongest, most confident blend of the band's darker early work with their more accessible recent direction. They save the best for last, though, as "The Gnashing" is pure upbeat rock 'n' roll that for all its power, is not far off from the harder fare of the Drive-By Truckers, the stomping percussion three minutes in bringing the album to a jubilant climax.
With the dreamy closing instrumental "Bullhead's Lament" reprising the opening instrumental melody, Blue Album is a perfect example of a band confident enough to know when to say when. The riffs, solos, and drum fills never feel like the band is showing off. Baroness simply lets the songs do their thing, never beating us over the head, never pandering, and in so doing, they've created a surprisingly adventurous album, further establishing their position as one of the finest, not to mention likeable bands in America these days.