It’s been a rough decade for hard rock. While metal has prospered under the ever-watchful and taste-stratifying eye of the Internet, sprouting enough micro-genres and mini-controversies to let fans burrow into the depths of the genre without ever coming up for air, hard rock has faded like a temporary tattoo coming off in the pool. Think about this: System Of A Down’s Toxicity is over 10 years old. The last Queens Of The Stone Age album came out in 2007. These are dark times for anyone who likes the occasional dash of lilting melody, squiggly prog excess and hazy desert psychedelics with their daily dose of loud. While this year has given us Torche’s sugary power-pop bubblegum metal album Harmonicraft, hard rock needs something bigger, something lumbering and ambitious. It needs Baroness.
The Savannah, GA, group has an intense and well-deserved metal pedigree thanks to its label (Relapse), its various touring partners (Mastodon, Isis, Metallica) and the simple fact that it’s created two thunderous and essential metal records, 2007′s Red Album and 2009′s Blue Record. But on its newest work, the ambitious, alternative-nation-uniting double album Yellow And Green, the band has crafted something surprising: a poignant, reflective hard-rock album that straddles the divide between ’70s classic rock ambition and ’90s alt-rock theatrics. The album is filled with reference points and musical digressions, but it’s less like an encyclopedia than it is a collection of short stories.
According to a recent CMJ interview with singer John Baizley the two parts of the record are designed to be separate, each with their own opening theme and with an intermission at the midpoint. The differences between the two albums are a little difficult to parse: Yellow is the slightly more anthemic, Foo Fighters assault, and Green is ostensibly the introspective, mercurial oddities collection. Like most worthwhile double albums, it’s immediately apparent that the group simply had too many ideas, too many sounds—an Edge guitar tone here, a throat-searing emo wail there—to be limited to one measly record. Though the two albums share themes (guilt, escape, inevitability) and imagery (decay, aquatic life, bones) there’s no unifying concept, unless “write good songs” was the concept.
Thankfully, there are some really good songs here. The guitars on Yellow churn (“Take My Bones Away”), buzz (“March To The Sea”) and twinkle (um…”Twinkler”) far more often than they hack, screech or roar. Those looking for a brutal stomp of a record will be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t retain a certain heaviness of spirit and a sense of creeping dread. While something like a Kylesa album always builds to a point of punk fury, like some sludgy bog-monster torn from the pages Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Baroness is more like a growing army of cicadas gathering in the distance, threatening to smash through the screen door.
Baizley’s vocals on the album are crystalline and direct, with fellow singer and guitarist Peter Adams providing ample backup support. “Board Up The House,” the second track on the Green half, is perhaps the album’s shiniest pop vocal moment. With its Southern Gothic imagery, its giant, arena-sized melody and its clacking guitar breakdown, the song sounds like a hard-hitting, emo version of a Drive By Truckers jam. “I’m already gone,” Baizley sings repeatedly, his voice bellowing and swelling, making the anguish exquisite.
The Green half of this peculiar diptych is where things start to get loose and rambling, without losing the clean, detail-oriented production techniques of the first half. This is precise but twitchy music. “Psalms Alive,” with its pitter-patter beat and its lyrics about “bombs” and “hand grenades,” is maybe the most eccentric song in the band’s catalog. There’s a spiritual heaviness to the track, an existential ache that builds up to a breaking point before getting released in a typically propulsive guitar solo. “Stretchmarker” is a delicate, acoustic, instrumental palette cleanser that wouldn’t sound out of place on a spruced-up Yo La Tengo soundtrack album. It’s indicative of Green‘s intricate sequencing that we then get “The Line Between,” a grungy head-banger. “Walk the line between the righteous and the wicked/And tomorrow I’ll be gone,” sings Baizley.
Because this is a double album, there will be the requisite questions: “Is it self-indulgent?” No. “Could it use some editing?” Maybe, but only if you’re a crank. “Is one half better?” Yeah, probably Yellow, but ask me again tomorrow. Fans will surely argue that a leaner, “perfect” album exists somewhere in this hunkering mass of 18 songs. Others might just abandon Baroness for louder, harsher and more dissonant sounds. But for those willing to stick around, to dig deep into this crazy monolith of an album, to put it on while you’re riding a bus or watching the sun rise, there’s a whole (nu) world to be found here.