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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.

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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