Baroness - Blue Record
Record Label: Relapse
Release Date: October 13, 2009
It must be something in the water down in The Peach State; while Georgia has been something of a breeding ground for a wide variety of bands in the past, from the early jangle-pop of R.E.M. to New Wavers The B-52s and indie icons Neutral Milk Hotel, its progeny of the last decade or so, led by Kylesa, the mighty Mastodon and, more recently, Baroness, have risen to the forefront in the realm of progessive-leaning sludge-metal. For those whose radars hadn't registered the releases of Baroness's two EPs on Hyperrealist Records (this reviewer included), it probably seemed like their 2007 full-length Red Album came out of nowhere, but it established them as a definite power player in the genre.
The much anticipated Blue Record has been called a "sister album" to its predecessor and generally lives up to that billing; fans hoping for a solid follow-up will not be disappointed, as the album finds Baroness in similar form (and also features stunning artwork from frontman John Dyer Baizley). Much in the same vein as Red Album, the band continues to produce gigantic, thunderous pieces, separating them with calming ambient segues, the contrast between pretty and heavy perhaps even more stark than before. The album opens with a perfect demonstration of this, with the darkly beautiful "Bullhead's Psalm" building up to the cathartic "The Sweetest Curse," which opens with chugging riffs from Baizley and new guitarist Peter Adams, followed by the first display of the former's impassioned vocals, which not unlike those on Red Album, are fierce and aggressive, yet still carry melody and are most often best described as "clean."
A distinct Southern flavor pervades much of Baroness's music, and the opening guitar line of "Jake Leg," which sounds more classic rock-inspired than true heavy metal, gives us our first real taste of it on Blue Record. The song quickly breaks loose, though, with Allen Blickle unleashing on the drums, his ferocity propelling the song forward. The band takes a break from the pummelling, offering the eerie, acoustic interlude "Steel That Sleeps the Eye," the grungy feel and haunting harmonies of which could be compared to Alice in Chains. It's a fitting lead-in to "Swollen and Halo," whose beginning is also reminiscent of a group of '90s grunge-rockers, this time Soundgarden. The thrashing soon erupts, transforming "Swollen" into an enormous prog-metal epic.
What makes Baroness's music so compelling and satisfying, even for a non-metalhead like me, is the sheer eclecticism and focus on musicianship that characterizes the album. When the crushing, but still very melodic, passage "Ogeechee Hymnal" fades to nothing but ominous, sustained guitar tones, it's downright suspenseful, and when the tension breaks with "A Horse Called Golgotha," it sounds like so much more than heaviness for the sake of heaviness. Of course, there are machine gun drums and fast, technical guitar play, but there is also a movement of psychedelic jamming and a seemingly overarching concern for melody that keeps the uninitiated listener's eardrums from feeling violated.
"O'er Hell and Hide," which starts with a hushed acoustic guitar line, turns into an assault of Blickle's galloping drums, searing guitars and primarily spoken-word vocals, and the sonic attack continues with "War, Wisdom and Rhyme," which is the most punishing track front-to-back, perhaps with the exception of "The Sweetest Curse." After "Blackpowder Orchard," a folk-inflected piece, something of a stylistic analog to "Cockroach en Fleur" from Red Album, comes the classic prog-rock-tinged "The Gnashing," and it's the best illustration of the biggest drawback to Blue Record: the lyrics. Upon hearing a line like, "all of my children that gnash with their teeth are paperback novels and dogs scratching fleas," it's hard to suppress a chuckle. Elsewhere, the lyrics are a melange of vague, grim images, but in truth, they're not the focus of the album, as the band seem to prefer letting their instruments do the talking anyway.
The instrumental "Bullhead's Lament" closes the album relatively quietly, much like it started. Because of how it's sequenced, Blue Record, like its predecessor, flows very well, has an almost cinematic quality with its rises and falls, and feels much more like a cohesive album that just a collection of songs. Though there is definitely enough fury here to satisfy most headbangers, it's also musical to the point where attaching the metal tag to it might be misleading. My tastes typically tend toward the lighter indie-rock fare, but each year there are a handful of heavy albums that stand out as superior, with thoughtful compositions and tight musicianship. Red Album definitely fell into this category, and with Baroness sticking with that they do best, Blue Record is equally triumphant.