Two years after the fact and I’m still having trouble naming a debut album from the past few years as kickass as Baroness’ Red Album. Of course, “debut” is a subjective term—the Savannah, Ga. group had released two EPs prior to that, named First and Second, respectively. So by the time they released their first full-length effort, they were more than prepared; their sound was more colossal and streamlined than ever, somehow creating a holy trinity of Mastodon’s burly sludge, Fugazi’s jagged post-hardcore urgency and Mogwai’s slow-burning post-rock intricacy. To call them a metal band only told part of the story, though the heaviness was definitely there. But with second proper album Blue Record arriving two years later, Baroness has evolved into even more melodic and psychedelic territory, issuing an album that not only lives up to the promise of its predecessor, but in some ways surpasses it.
In the broadest sense, Blue Record is an awe-inspiring and powerful rock `n’ roll album, albeit one that still finds the band incorporating the heaviness and the hard-hitting surge of post-hardcore. Yet the group’s tendency toward atmospheric epics have been compartmentalized into brief interludes, while their bigger songs have been packed with meatier hooks and a dizzying array of psych- and Southern-rock riffs. In short, if you’re in the mood to hear something loud and awesome this should adequately floor you.
As the slow, but brief acid swirl of opener “Bullhead’s Psalm,” rife with harmonized soloing, opens the album, it’s apparent that the listener is being pulled into a dense and intriguing sonic world this time around. Yet just as that minute-long teaser subsides, in comes the dense powerhouse of “The Sweetest Curse,” which displays the band at their most furiously direct. Low-end churn and dynamite riffs courtesy of new guitarist Pete Adams thunder beneath John Dyer Baizley’s menacing howls. It incorporates much of what made Baroness so formidable before, only in more accessible form. The same goes for “Jake Leg,” a fists-in-the-air anthem reminiscent of Red Album‘s “Wanderlust.” It’s heavy and it’s loud, and, above all, it’s rock and fucking roll.
The most genuine surprise on Blue Record (or at least one of the top three), comes in “Steel That Sleep’s The Eye,” in which Baroness trade in their muscular licks and bone-crunching rhythms for a serene, but still trippy acoustic number. It’s an interesting change of course, but it comes and goes quickly, transitioning into the album’s most epic and, perhaps, best track, “Swollen and Halo.” Trading in any trace elements of sludge for power chords and spiraling smoke rings of guitar, the band builds up an impressive song that’s progressive and layered, but ultimately one of the catchiest things they’ve done. Likewise, “A Horse Called Golgotha” is set ablaze by Mastodon-like passages of serpentine riffs, while its chorus escalates into a mighty refrain that deserves a jeweled pedestal in the hard rock canon. Its transition into a mystical acoustic/electric bridge transforms the soaring into the beautiful, which only serves to bolster its place as one of the greatest songs the band has written.
With “O’er Hell and Hide” comes spoken word verses and some of the catchiest material on the album, in spite of a near-absence of vocals, while “War, Wisdom and Rhyme” is simply an awesome metal throwdown. And the last proper slab of rock on the album, “The Gnashing,” is a major key jam session until the final 85 seconds or so, during which Baizley’s growl cuts through to steer the album toward its conclusion in “Bullhead’s Lament,” another exotic instrumental that ends the album much like it began. Over the album’s 45 minutes, there are four of these brief interludes, serving to anchor different sections of the album. Though a less patient soul might come to regard these as filler, they actually serve as effective transitions and bookends, further bolstering an already amazing set of music.
In an already impressive year of heavy releases, Baroness has set the bar that much higher with Blue Record. Though Red Album left the band open to pursuing various facets of their sound, be they the band’s sludgier tendencies or their penchant for spacious epics, what resulted is something that rocks hard, but is far more accessible, even quite pretty at times. Truly magnificent.