Music

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

Beth Winegarner

Every region fosters rebellious music and, in the South, that music is sludge metal. With its unwavering sense of place, Baroness gives voice to the gospel of sludge.


Baroness

Yellow & Green

Label: Relapse
US Release Date: 2012-07-17
UK Release Date: 2012-07-17
Amazon
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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".

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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