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.

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."

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