Album of the Week: Baroness – Gold & Grey

Jeff Terich
best albums of 2019 so far Baroness

Back in March, as Baroness introduced what would be the fifth and final album in their ongoing color-scheme albums, Gold & Grey, frontman John Baizley remarked that it was “by far, the most extreme thing we’ve ever done.” In metal, that’s something of a loaded term; to even broach the subject is to invite speculation that the shape-shifting psychedelic metal band have embraced grindcore, powerviolence and public displays of self-flagellation. They haven’t done any of that, but Baizley’s not necessarily wrong. Gold & Grey, the endpoint of a decade-plus period of transformation and change, trials and tribulation, lineup changes and near-death experiences, find Baroness far past the point of being interested in playing anything safe.

That doesn’t mean Gold & Grey is their heaviest, darkest or most abrasive record—though producer Dave Fridmann’s touch here does add a level of harshness and noise on occasion that’s comparable to his intensely distorted touch on Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods. Rather, Baroness take the idea of making “progressive” rock far past, well, progressive rock. Though on that note, the band is embracing their prog tendencies in addition to their pop tendencies, creating a record that doesn’t sound like Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but traffics in similar structural ideas of packaging some of their biggest hooks into some of their least straightforward compositions. That the album’s longest track, “Borderlines,” was also its first single is evidence of that curious duality, a rock song that employs the lexicon of metal, heavy on both groove and contrasting time signatures.

Gold & Grey is, however, the band’s weirdest album by a pretty significant margin, and that makes it all the more fun to listen to as it progresses. With the bombastic opening of “Front Toward Enemy,” Baizley and new guitarist Gina Gleason unleash some of the most monstrous riffs the band’s put to tape in some time. But the band’s stylistic parameters only spiral further outward from there, from the literal bells and dark grooves of “I’m Already Gone,” to the eruption of an actual blast beat on “Seasons” (there’s your extreme!), to the shimmering psychedelia of “Tourniquet.” Within just the first five tracks, the band takes on seemingly as many different aesthetic diversions, though somehow they manage to keep pushing that even further on a track such as “I’d Do Anything,” in which guitars take a backseat to some pretty cosmic piano treatments. And the stellar build up from a psychedelic dirge in “Cold Blooded Angels” up to its thunderous climax is one of the album’s most thrilling moments. And throughout it all, the band’s musicianship is pushed to its limit, including Baizley’s own vocals, which reveal a range much broader than his earliest barks.

Baroness have always been the type of band to consider the full picture of an album beyond the individual songs, and though on that front they’re delivering some of the best of their career, what stitches them together is just as interesting. As with previous albums, the 17 tracks of Gold & Grey include a handful of instrumentals and interludes, such as the string-laden grandeur of “Anchor’s Lament” or the piano-driven ambience of “Sevens.” But these in-between moments offer just as many exercises for experimentation, be it the warbling electronics of “Blankets of Ash,” the krautrock pulse of “Can Oscura” or the peculiar space trip of “Assault on East Falls.” These ultimately come to help form a complete landscape, much like the detailed foliage, nails, insects or teeth in Baizley’s own cover art illustrations.

Baroness have most certainly done something extreme, but in a surprising way. It’s at turns beautiful and harsh, spacious and maximalist. It’s undoubtedly the biggest-sounding record they’ve recorded, as well as the one that’s the hardest to pin down. It’s loud, it’s heavy, but it’s arguably their least committed to being a metal album, at least consistently so. More accurately, it seems like one of the heaviest and best psychedelic albums to arrive this year. “I can’t wait for people to hear this record, mainly because I’m curious about what kind of music people think it is,” Baizley said in a Decibel feature. “I don’t know what kind of music it is anymore.”

However far off the expected track Baroness have gone on Gold & Grey, they’ve done so while maintaining the characteristics that ultimately tie this album back to their earliest recordings. The dual guitar leads and vocal harmonies, right down to the earnestness of Baizley’s lyrics: “We fall, we rise/ We bend, we break/ We burn, but we survive,” he sings on “Seasons.” That’s as succinct a summary of Baroness’ ability to keep going, against the odds. They’ve steadily lost and gained members over the years, suffered a horrifying bus crash that nearly ended the band, and with some permanent injuries to show for it. But they’re still going, still challenging themselves, still moving the goalposts that much farther out.

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