It grows increasingly challenging to place Baroness within the context of heavy music with each passing year. It’s never been all that cut and dry to begin with—despite their debut Red Album being labeled alternately as “post-metal” or “Southern sludge,” they shared little in common with either Neurosis or Eyehategod, instead navigating a space where both more abstract dynamics and a genuine penchant for rock ‘n’ roll melody could coexist. That formulation hasn’t necessarily changed though much about the band has, including a semi-frequent rotation of musicians for various reasons, with vocalist/guitarist John Baizley the only original member left in the band. But their evolution over two decades has been neither inorganic nor made without thoughtful consideration to what ultimately makes a Baroness album what it is; somehow, even their most radical transformations still end up sounding essentially like Baroness, however much that definition has changed over the years.
STONE, the first album to break from their cycle of chromatic themes and the first in a decade to feature the same lineup as its predecessor, is rife with curiously harmonious contradictions. Shaving off some of the excess of their previous album, 2019’s Gold & Grey, STONE is more concise and at times more direct, structurally similar to 2015’s Purple and similarly propelled by a barrelling forward momentum, but harboring one stylistic detour after another. There’s an immediacy to the material that remains an essential part of what Baroness is and does—their soaring choruses and vocal harmonies are as inextricable to their sonic makeup as their riffs—but that never stands in the way of their increasing instincts toward getting truly weird.
Part and parcel to that weirdness is how far along they are on the spectrum of progressive rock influence, though not necessarily in the sense of what you might hear in a band like Opeth. For one thing, their songs are a lot shorter, though here they stretch out a bit more than usual, delivering some of their longest dirges since “Rays on Pinion” in the ethereal folk march of “Magnolia” and the smoky, psychedelic swirl of “Shine.” But even a more streamlined and focused standout like the hypercharged groove of “Choir” melts into acid-laced sequences of spoken-word and Baizley’s pitch-shifted vocals. It’s in moments like these where Baroness seem to be having fun with the idea of upending expectations—infectiously so.
The tradeoff for hanging with the band’s weirder diversions is that they pack STONE with some of their heaviest riffs in years. There’s a galvanizing opening chug to “Last Word,” as perfect a metal-as-rock song as they’ve written, juxtaposing arpeggiated sheen with a furious darkness. “Beneath the Rose” crashes out of the gates with grunge riffs and more Baizley spoken delivery, whereas “Anodyne” makes more dramatic use of his and Gina Gleason’s dual-guitar attack, chasing Iron Maiden bombast into a richly arranged strata of stoner metal crunch and classic rock acoustic jangle. At almost no point do Baroness end a song similar to how it began, the whole of each song—whether sprawling or concise—comprising some of their most unpredictable progressions.
STONE represents another break from their previous albums in being the first self-produced record after two featuring Flaming Lips/MGMT producer Dave Fridmann at the controls. The harsher, brickwalled sounds of that record are absent, and even the most dense arrangements still feel like they have plenty of breathing room. That said, they’re not above washing their quieter moments in lo-fi static, as on the gospel-tinged “The Dirge.” But the spacious beauty of country-metal epic “Magnolia” is given the benefit of a wide-open plain. (Both of these examples also support my hunch, as with “Mtns. (Crown and Anchor)”, that there’s a fucking amazing potential Baroness alt-country/Americana record lurking somewhere beneath the surface.) These are at times disorienting songs but they’re not suffocating; at times, they’re often among the band’s prettiest. That they also explore just as much terrain on the opposing end suggests just how unpredictable and exciting Baroness’ journey continues to be.
Label: Abraxan Hymns
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.