Where the Thunderclouds Are Rolling: Baroness, Sludge, and Southern Rebellion

Yellow & Green

Southern summers are brutal. With temperatures in the low 90s and humidity near 100 percent, Savannah, Georgia’s hottest months are practically tropical. Frequent thunderstorms blot out the skies while hurricanes threaten landfall. Savannah’s vast canopies of live oak trees are always green, curtained with Spanish moss, giving the throbbing summer air a dreamlike quality.

Every region fosters rebellious music — particularly a region as conservative as the Bible Belt. In most places, heavy metal remains the quintessential soundtrack for misfit alienation. But traditional metal — the breakneck, speed-obsessed metal invented in places like San Francisco — could never have taken root in Savannah. Nobody wants to perform at upwards of 180 beats per minute when it’s a sauna outside.

That’s how sludge metal was born. Sludge is a moonshine distilled from sounds pioneered in the south: blues, especially as interpreted by Black Sabbath; country, notably the gritty, tell-it-like-it-is country of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams; jazz, as re-imagined by progressive rock artists such as King Crimson; and southern rock. True to its name, sludge is a slowed-down groove, the sound of your boots sucking down in the swamp.

“Savannah is really hot. If that doesn’t influence what you do, I don’t know what does,” says John Dyer Baizley, frontman for sludge/prog-metal band Baroness. “Musically speaking, I think it tuned us down. There isn’t any point in writing music you can’t practice.”

Savannah is home to three of sludge’s preeminent bands: Baroness, Kylesa, and Black Tusk. This small, tight-knit metal family has produced some of the most inventive music to emerge from the South in decades — as well as some of the most arresting, recognizable artwork since San Francisco’s 1960s counterculture, thanks to Baizley. His paintings, a riot of wild nature, regal women, skeletons, and decay, have graced album covers and posters for Kylesa, Black Tusk, Torche, and even Gillian Welch.

It’s no wonder these bands emerged where they did. Surrounded by conservatism, Savannah provides an oasis of liberalism, a space for rebellion to breathe. While statewide voters favored John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Chatham County backed Barack Obama by 57 percent. The city became a destination for musicians like Baizley, fleeing more rural parts of the South for better opportunities.

“They’re poor, they’re surrounded by a lot of Bible-thumping Christians. If you’re different [in the South], it’s a lot different than if you’re in Chicago or California,” says Bob Lugowe, spokesman for Relapse Records, which represents Baroness and many other sludge bands. “A lot of [these bands] lived in rural areas where there’s nothing to do. They got together and start playing together, and that sticks with you.”

John Baizley of Baroness

Hear your rolling river

Baizley’s family moved to Lexington, Virginia, when he was on the cusp of adolescence. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the feet of the Appalachians, the town’s population has hovered near 6,500 since the 1980s. Lexington didn’t provide much to stimulate the spirit of a misfit teenage boy.

“In a town like that, there’s not a whole lot of options,” Baizley says. “You either study hard and work your way toward getting out of town, or you learn a trade. But the teenage mindset in a town like that is such that, with so little to do, music is the outlet for anyone who wants to keep themselves out of trouble.”

Although Lexington and the surrounding area supported a thriving bluegrass scene, Baizley wasn’t interested. He discovered punk rock, driving long distances to see shows and bring that sound home with him. His mother likes to say that Baizley channeled all his boredom, frustration, and anger — plus an unquenchable need for creativity — into music.

The rich wilderness surrounding Lexington provided plenty of opportunities to get outside and explore. They also provided a backdrop for adolescent pastimes: teens partied outdoors, making campfires in the woods or holding generator-powered rock shows in the country. Music and nature were wedded early in Baizley’s mind.

Ultimately, Baizley escaped Lexington. A nascent but considerable artistic talent landed him a spot at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. He honed his abilities but also fell prey to substance abuse. To clean up, he returned to Lexington and moved into a house on the Maury River with little connection to the outside world.

Sobriety — and his girlfriend, who had enrolled in the Savannah College of Art and Design — lured him further south. He traded the Maury River for the Okefenokee Swamp. But there were elements of home in Savannah: there, Baizley reconnected with friends from his Lexington punk-rock days, including guitarist Tim Loose, bassist Summer Welch, and drummer Allen Blickle. In 2003, they formed Baroness.

Their early sound melded punk’s confrontationalism and the crushing riffs of sludge pioneers Eyehategod and Corrosion of Conformity with touches of progressive metal. Before long, the sound of another, decidedly non-southern counterculture seeped in: psychedelia. This move toward melody brought with it some ghosts of Baizley’s past, including bluegrass, country, and southern rock.

“When we were kids, working on farms and out in the country, you hear a lot of [those bands],” Baizley says. “I’ve always been a closet country fan. I mean that heartfelt country of the ’50s, like Johnny Cash. There’s something soulful and spiritual that happens in among all that stuff that I find more difficult to find in the other styles. The part of us that speaks to an audience, there’s a spirit at work, trying to communicate something like that between band and audience — it’s very much more pronounced in the southern styles of music whether it’s country, rock, gospel, blues. It is that raw, unfettered, exposed songwriting I’ve always gravitated toward.”

Between 2003 and 2006, Baroness released two three-song EPs, First and SecondA Gray Sigh in a Flower Husk (also sometimes called Third), a split album with fellow Savannah band Unpersons. During this time, Baroness toured the South tirelessly — which encouraged community and cross-pollination between bands and audiences, according to CT, the frontman for Rwake, a sludge-metal band based in Little Rock, Arkansas. In most places, bands will only play shows with others in their genre. Not so in the South, where “a weird, shoegazey instrumental band will play with a black metal band or a crusty band,” says CT, who directed Slow Southern Steel, a documentary about the southern metal scene. “That’s what’s cool about the South — there aren’t a lot of bands like that, [so they’ll play together].”

Baroness – “Wanderlust”

By 2007, Baroness had attracted the attention of Relapse Records and began recording the Red Album, which took the band in a more melodic, more obviously prog direction. That direction has strengthened with each album, including Blue Record in 2009 and Yellow & Green, which has just been released. The melodic core of these records comes by way of classic southern sounds: southern-rock guitar weaves through “Wanderlust”, “The Gnashing”, and the anthemic “Green Theme”. The band’s acoustic tracks — “Cockroach En Fleur”, “Blackpowder Orchard”, “Twinkler”, “Stretchmarking” — ripple with fingerpicked strings straight out of bluegrass territory. Chiming blues guitars anchor other tracks, including “The Sweetest Curse” and “Little Things”.

Hands in the ground

“The Southerner…was primarily a direct product of the soil. This simple, rustic figure is the true center from which the Old South proceeded…the dominant trait of this mind was an intense individualism.” — W.J. Cash, The Mind of the South

The early white settlers of the Virginia Appalachians were famers and laborers, “yeoman farmers”, as Cash put it. These families were pushed into the mountains by the enormous plantations further south, and cut off from the rest of the South by the forbidding landscape as well as the lack of roads and railroads. Because they could not travel to sell their crops, Virginia’s Appalachian families farmed just to survive — and remained in poverty while slave-owning plantation owners grew wealthy.

As a child growing up in rural Virginia, Baizley must have drunk deep this agrarian legacy. “I have always had a deep connection to the South. When I write lyrics, I attempt to communicate some of the perceptions and experiences I’ve had living there. The sublime beauty there is so often overshadowed by a sharp and angry shadow of the past,” he said.

Baroness’ early songs made frequent, if brief, references to working the Earth. In “Rise”, Baizley sings, “You till the ground and bring to home / Muscle flesh and blood to bone / Taste this oaken grain / Grab its horns and not the reins.” In “Isak,” Baizley turns the whole song over to agrarian life, or so it seems. In the farmhand character Baizley might be describing himself, the songwriter, harvesting songs from the proverbial soil and livestock: “Isak / Hands in the ground / Buried traces of sound scream.”

Beyond farming, Baroness’ songs frequently map the landscape in another way. “Sense of place” is a common motif among southern writers, according to David Evans, a music professor at the University of Memphis. You hear it in Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”.

The Red Album‘s penultimate song “O’Appalachia” is Baroness’ first open ode to the South, paying tribute to Baizley’s bittersweet coming-of-age in the wilds of Virginia. “I wrote ‘O’Appalachia’ during a time when I was reflecting on my move from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the swamps in Savannah, Georgia. As I moved my life to the coastal low country, I had a frequent tendency to pine for my days in the mountains,” Baizley says.

Blue Record‘s “Ogeechee Hymnal” meditates on the wide-mouthed river connecting Savannah to the Atlantic seaboard, while in “War, Wisdom and Rhyme”, Baizley namechecks a bevy of southern scenes, from peaches and sawgrass to rattlesnakes and confederate steel. Though Baroness has drifted away from its sludge roots on Yellow & Green, the band has moved closer to its geographic roots, from the mountains in “Mtns. (Crown & Anchor)” to the swamps in “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry”. The double album aches with nostalgia, most particularly on “Back Where I Belong”, where Baizley pleads, “Wake me when the thunderclouds are rolling / Take me to a hazy Sunday morning.”

Baroness cover art by John Baizley

Unadorned paganism

“There was the influence of the Southern physical world — itself a sort of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance. The country is one of extravagant colors, of proliferating foliage and bloom, of flooding yellow sunlight, and above all, perhaps, of haze.” — W.J. Cash

Baizley’s reverence for the land goes even deeper in his artwork, which pays almost religious tribute to the ferocity of southern terroir. Baizley’s paintings reverberate with the untamed landscapes of the rural South, drawing upon the rich, almost pagan relationship between humans and nature. His album covers — crowded with flowers and animals, powerful women, and depictions of birth and death — exude the feral, even dangerous, fecundity of southern land.

A pair of beautiful, regal women adorn the cover of the Red Album. The naked one looks you right in the eye, while the other, in a crown of petals, stares into the distance. Look closer: her “flower” crown is made of scarab beetles. The other woman wears a circlet of bird skulls, teeth strung around her neck. Poppies swarm around them, both the blooms and the pods from which sleep- and death-inducing opium is made.

Pairs and trios of women return for the covers of Blue Record and Yellow & Green, sitting on thrones made of fish, holding a bullhead catfish like a scepter; wearing a rooster or a candelabra (or maggots) as a crown; cradling crayfish in their laps; raising a dagger to slit the throat of a black swan. Baizley’s illustrations echo a biologist’s attention to fact and detail.

“My process is pretty simple. I begin by accumulating references, photography and working with live models. I start with a sketch, then develop an ink drawing of the sketch, and finally finish it off with a painting,” Baizley says. “I let some of the mythology and natural elements develop spontaneously, and pre-plan others that I feel strongly about.”

If anything, the South is more apparent in the artwork Baizley has produced for his Savannah comrades. His hallucinatory cover for Kylesa’s Static Tensions is pulled from nightmare tropes, with teeth falling out and eyes watching from the trees. In the foreground, Spanish moss drips from the central figure’s hands, while off to the side, tobacco leaves curl in a plume of smoke. His covers for Black Tusk feature a parade of tusked women, each one bearing an intense gaze. One, pierced with arrows St. Sebastian-style, rides a wild boar sidesaddle, while another nurses a pair of piglets. Baizley’s women reveal just how inseparable from nature we are.

Because Baizley’s work is so recognizable, his art gives Savannah’s sludge-metal bands a unified face. The beauty and verisimilitude of his paintings might, at first, seem a stark contrast to the gritty truncheon of sound bursting from these records. But both seem rooted in an interpretation of the South as both unbearably lush and terrifying.

Given conservative Christianity’s command in the South, I ask Baizley whether his artwork is intentionally, rebelliously pagan. “Jung wrote, ‘The great events of our world as planned and executed by man do not breathe the spirit of Christianity but rather of unadorned paganism’,” he responds. “I don’t subscribe to any definable divinity, so I create them on paper as my work progresses. Art is an excellent dumping ground for my own, unscripted and limited definition of the spirit.”

Be proud you’re a rebel

Be proud you’re a rebel

“What our Southerner required…was a faith as simple and emotional as himself. A faith to draw men together in hordes, to terrify them with Apocalyptic rhetoric, to cast them into the pit, rescue them, and at last bring them shouting into the fold of Grace. A faith, not of liturgy and prayer book, but of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice — often of fits and jerks and barks.” — W.J. Cash

If Baizley’s artwork poses a sharp reminder of nature’s power in the 21st century South, Baroness’ music — and sludge in general — provides the soundtrack for southern liberals’ rejection of the increasingly powerful juggernaut of Republicanism and the religious right.

Southern music has given a voice to the disempowered since Robert Johnson sang, “I’m a hard workin’ man, have been for many years / And some cream puff’s usin’ my money.” At the end of the 1960s, desegregation shook every corner of the South. In response, southern Republicans concentrated their strength. Young, liberal white southerners — men in particular — were left wondering if they had a place in society.

In the 1970s, southern rock gave them their answer. Bands such as Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd demonstrated progressive racial and political views, particularly through their lyrics. The Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band performed at fundraisers for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign. Carter, from Georgia, was the last Democrat to win the majority of the South.

In recent years, as the country has been divided into “red states” and “blue states”, this part of the nation has only gotten redder. The alienation of southern Democrats gave rise to a parallel movement: the Christian right, driven by the spreading of evangelical megachurches, particularly by Southern Baptists. Its quarterbacks include Viginia’s Pat Robertson and Georgia’s Newt Gingrich. Even some of the South’s music rebels have grown conservative; Skynyrd is slated to play this year’s GOP convention.

By the turn of the 21st Century, the South had become such a stronghold of conservatism that its political views were out of synch with the rest of the nation. A 1999 poll showed that 56 percent of southerners supported integration, compared with 71 percent outside the South, according to Cobb. In 2002, about half of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, an idea backed by two-thirds of southerners.

Such rapid, dramatic polarization could only produce a new southern rock, this one much harsher and less commercial. Liberal, open-minded kids growing up in an increasingly conservative South needed something more rebellious to embrace. Sludge metal provides just the ticket.

In CT’s mind, there’s no question that the heavy, gritty sound of southern metal developed in direct response to the rise of conservatism: “That whole scenario is the reason. I think that has everything to do with the music getting harder and harder. Now, as we get older, we might not blatantly say we hate these fuckers like we used to, but when I look at our lyrical content, it still comes from the same place.”

BaronessYellow & Green in studio

Raise your voices

Music — particularly in the South — has always brought people together, whether it was gospel in the rural churches or country in the honky tonks, Evans says. Sludge gives young southerners a way to rebel against the dominant culture. It also gives them a tribe of protection where their perspectives and political views matter. Metal inspires the kind of reverence in its fans normally reserved for religion. If the faith of the South is one of “primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice — often of fits and jerks and barks,” as Cash put it, the only response can be music that matches that faith’s intensity.

Sludge metal surely fits the bill. It trembles with the spirit of the South, its brutal heat and wild nature. This is where the workaday southerner’s music — the blues, country, jazz, and southern rock — melts together in metal’s crucible. Sludge’s doom and dirges sing the darkness in the heart of the South, while its brighter melodies celebrate the bounty only this fecund land can provide.

Southern metal bands preach their own gospel, one that elevates the individuality and defiance that has always set the South apart. “Raise your voices…breathe in choruses,” Baroness’ music urges. Sludge gives young, restless, liberal southerners a chance to do just that.

And Baroness — with its unwavering sense of place, its hands in the fertile soil, and its lush, wild, unsettling art — gives a face and a voice to the gospel of sludge.