Baroness - Gold & Grey
Jun 27, 2019
95
”I would do anything to feel like I’m alive again.”

There’s a common misconception that those who survive a near-death experience find a renewed lust for life, an almost simple-minded gratefulness for the mere circumstance of continuing to exist. The reality is, of course, more complicated. John Baizley, frontman, guitarist, artist behind those incredibly intricate album covers, and now the only remaining founding member of Baroness, knows the reality of a life lived in the shadow of trauma intimately.

In 2012, whilst on tour in the UK, following the release of their double LP, Yellow & Green, the band’s tour bus careened off a 30ft high viaduct near the city of Bath, causing terrible injuries and leading directly to the departure of two of the band’s founding members. 2015’s Purple marked a defiant, triumphant return, characterised by the group’s most straightforwardly catchy compositions yet. It was a record, the colour of fresh bruises, which dealt with the immediate aftermath of the accident: the violent shock and the invigorating relief of being alive after coming so close to death. On Baroness’ latest album, Gold & Grey, the last in the group’s chromatically-themed series of records, and first with new guitarist Gina Gleason, Baizley explores the longer term repercussions of that fateful crash and the impact it has had on his life these past six years. What emerges is a searing portrait of the alienating effects of post traumatic stress, the way it can drain one’s life of colour, turning the “gold” to “grey.”

Across the album’s seventeen tracks, split into a tri-part structure over three sides of vinyl, Baroness sprinkle stylistic touchstones from their previous records amongst some entirely new sonic avenues. There’s the characteristically spiralling riffing, the rhythms and time signatures that turn on a dime, and Baizley’s impassioned bellow; but there’s also a natural evolution of the more anthemic, melodic songwriting that characterised Purple, and a certain kind of deliberate messiness to the compositions, born of improvisation and studio experimentation. They touch on everything from sludge to black to prog-metal, from campfire folk to rock of every flavour, be it arena-, hard-, post-, or psych-. There’s a sense that Gold & Grey serves simultaneously as an end point and a new beginning. And that’s just one of the many dualities at the album’s heart. As its title suggests, this is a work of art concerned with light and dark, hope and despair, victory and defeat, and, ultimately, life and death.

Baroness have always been masters of sequencing and pacing. 2009’s Blue flowed so perfectly it seemed to compress time. However, on Gold & Grey, the band appear to be doing their utmost to disrupt the listening experience. They follow up opener, ‘Front Towards Enemy’, which explodes with the force of an M-18 claymore mine, with the mid-paced mood-piece, ‘I’m Already Gone’. They devote five of the album’s tracks to instrumental segues, from plaintive piano tracks to string-laden elegies to noisy synth excursions, that repeatedly tap the brakes on the album’s momentum. Songs begin a certain way, only to change completely or turn themselves inside out minutes later. ‘Tourniquet’ opens with a disarmingly intimate acoustic intro of finger-picked guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies, which is reminiscent of The Wrens with its extreme channel separation, before erupting into a sky-scraping rock song. ‘Seasons’ augments its soaring central refrain ("We fall, we rise, we bend, we break, but we survive!") with blast beats straight out of a Scandinavian black metal winter. ‘Borderlines’ flips its groove for an extended kraut-rock jam of a coda.

The tracklist veers wildly from fist-pumping, thrilling rockers like ‘Throw Me an Anchor’ and ‘Broken Halo’ to quieter moments like ‘Emmet - Radiating Light’ and the album’s exposed heart of a centrepiece, ‘I’d Do Anything’. It should be a mess. But it never feels like it.

Gold & Grey is like a hall of gold-framed, but noticeably weathered mirrors. Musical phrases are repeated and echoed from one track to another. The string part intended for one song appears alongside a slowed down version of the chorus from another. Lyrical motifs are revisited time and time again, with Baizley’s obsessions including blood, broken bones, fire, rain, empty roads, deep oceans, and, of course, colours. Lots and lots of colours. All of which lends this apparently unwieldy record a sense of carefully composed cohesiveness that rewards repeated, close listening. Where an album like Purple barrelled along with unstoppable propulsiveness, time and attention reveal that Gold & Grey ebbs and flows with the natural grace of breathing.

It helps that this is possibly the strongest set of songs that Baroness have ever laid to tape. Front-to-back, the album is loaded with memorable hooks and breathtaking moments, regardless of the mode the band is operating in. When that huge guitar lead splits the sky on ‘Tourniquet’ it’s an instant of irrepressible triumph on a song that expresses extremely damaged feelings (“I've got an artificial heart/ It beats but I can't feel a thing”). The deeply sonorous, reverberating quality of the piano line on ‘I’d Do Anything’ underlines the drama of the emotional turmoil at the song’s core: the desperate need to feel anything but all-consuming numbness. And the central vocal refrain is so indelibly catchy, that the song’s sadness has the potential to sneak up on you, even when you’re not actually listening to the album.

Where Baroness used to be a band about pummeling heaviness, tricky compositions and guitar heroics, they’re now about a different kind of heaviness. Much more of what they do is in service to eliciting an emotional response, rather than merely aiming to impress. Re-listen to Red and Blue (not to mention the first two EPs) and you will be struck by how often lengthy instrumental passages will unfurl without Baizley’s voice as a grounding mechanism. Ever since Yellow & Green, when Baizley traded in his standard-issue metal holler for the more expressive, melodically agile instrument he wields today, Baroness’ songwriting has foregrounded melody and emotion. And Gold & Grey is a darkly emotional album, steeped in self-destructive imagery and searingly raw portrayals of the sense of alienation from the self that life-changing traumas can precipitate. On ‘Emmet - Radiating Light,’ a torchlit acoustic guitar and piano number that recalls nothing less than Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Hurt,’ Baizley delivers the most beautifully devastating verse of his career: “I'm in a shower/ Of radiating light/ But not where I belong.”

And yet, listening to the album is a paradoxically joyful experience. Baizley has said that music has saved his life on multiple occasions. A self-evident joy in the act of musical creation pervades the album. Individually, drummer Sebastian Thomson, bassist, Nick Jost, guitarist, Gina Gleason, and Baizley himself are extremely accomplished musicians. As a group, they’re extraordinary. While they’re not an outwardly showy band, there’s incredible technique on display on Gold & Grey: the interplay in the rhythm section is a joy to behold, with Jost’s nimble, surprisingly funky, basslines playing off Thomson’s intricate fills and pummeling energy; the twin guitar attack is as vitalising as ever, and while there are fewer overt six-string heroics on display, it never feels like there’s a note out of place.

The fact of the matter is that Baroness are not the band they used to be. You’d be hard-pressed now to throw the “metal” label at them and have it stick completely. Yes, they can be as heavy as your Mastodons or your Kylesas, but they can be as delicate as Low, as grandiose and moving as The Smashing Pumpkins, as anthemic as Foo Fighters. On Gold & Grey, they have firmly established that they can do whatever they want, and sound however they damn well please.

There has been much criticism levelled at the band’s choice to re-enlist Purple producer Dave Fridmann (he of Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, and MGMT fame), with many decrying the mix as borderline unlistenable. Now, I could write a lengthy supplemental essay entitled ‘In Defence of the Production and Mixing of Baroness’s Gold & Grey’, but I’ll spare you. Suffice to say that Fridmann is an unconventional choice of producer for an unconventional metal band, and I’d argue that the work he does on Gold & Grey is perfectly in tune with the band’s artistic intentions. Yes, there are moments where the mix is blown out; the detail in the guitar lines lost to brick-walling, the hi-hats and cymbal crashes landing like sheets of harsh static. But this is also an album where you can hear the creaks of a piano stool as the player’s weight shifts. It’s a detailed recording, attuned to texture, the tactile quality of sound. It’s a fallacy to believe that production should always be as clean as possible, with strong separation in the mix, so that you can make out the detail of every part being played. ‘Throw Me An Anchor’ is arguably more impactful because of the apparent messiness of the production.

It’s not meant to all be beautiful. Sometimes, as on the closing moments of the album, it’s deliberately ugly. The working title for Gold & Grey was Orange, the colour of rust. Perhaps there is an underlying reason for the metallic, imperfect quality of the production. You may notice that over the course of the record, the segues become more fragmentary, more distorted and degraded, and, by the end, the very notion of what constitutes a Baroness song has been turned inside out. Rust spreads. This is an album whose very title makes clear that it is all about brilliance tarnished; its sound is of a piece with its theme.

(continues in comments)
7 Comments
Jun 27, 2019
With Gold & Grey, Baizley and his cohorts have produced a monumental work of art that’s as dark and forbidding as it is bright and triumphant. It perfectly balances light and dark, revels in the creative possibilities of music-making, whilst plumbing emotional depths that might have you worrying a little for Baizley’s state of mind.
Jun 27, 2019
We haven’t all been through near-death experiences like the one Baroness endured seven years ago, but many of us have felt that sense of alienation from ourselves and the people and things around us, that can ultimately manifest as a seemingly physical inability to find peace of mind, let alone happiness.
Jun 27, 2019
There’s a universal relatability to the words sung by Baizley and Gleason across this record that means it will, undoubtedly, land emotionally with a lot of people. Hopefully it will be the gold that can, if only momentarily, help lift them out of the grey.
Jun 27, 2019
Great review, but I disagree that the production and mixing helped the record. For me, a lot of great moments turn to okay ones because of how lousy it sounds at points. If that was the effect they were hoping for, I don't think it was executed well, as most seem to agree. Yet, I'm glad you didnt avoid the issue and again, stellar review, as always.
Jun 27, 2019
Fair, everyone hears things differently. This album feels like the laurel/yanny thing, where some people hear lousy production and others can't hear anything to complain about. Very weird. I think the production and mixing contributed to the character of the record. I'd be interested to know which sections in particular people have a problem with.
Jun 27, 2019
Firstly, excellent review. You are a much better writer than what I can imagine ever becoming. Secondly, on your comment on which sections people had a problem with, while I think quite consistently I found the mixing to be poor, it is especially terrible on the end of Seasons and Throw Me An Anchor.
Jun 27, 2019
Thanks for the very flattering feedback. Interesting, in the copy I have it's very obvious that the mix is deliberately obscured at the end of Throw Me An Anchor. But I can see how that might hinder your enjoyment
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