Monday 6 January 2020

Baroness - Gold & Grey (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Jun 2019
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I started out my music reviews here in 2019 by alternating a new album with one from the previous year and I plan to continue in that vein ths January. Throughout this month, I'll be reviewing a new album alongside one from 2019 that I missed out on and has probably received strong critical acclaim. I'm kicking off with the new Baroness album, released last June, because that's been especially well received by critics and recommended to me personally as well.

I hadn't previously heard Baroness but they're a band from Savannah who have apparently evolved their sound over the years from sludge metal to a sort of alternative prog rock that still carries a metal crunch at points but sounds really big in other ways. It's how the songs are put together as much as how they're played, but it's as hard to imagine Baroness on a tiny club stage as it is to imagine Pink Floyd in anything but a vast stadium.

What felt odd to me was how they were at once inviting but deep. On a first listen, I found the songs trying to grab me but failing because they're not that immediate. Prog isn't always immediate, of course, but a more obscure prog album can often be a challenge, sounding awful or even ridiculous until we get on the right wavelength and suddenly realise what genius it is. This isn't that sort of challenging, because it's friendly hook-laden stuff from moment one but there are a lot of other things going on, on multiple layers, so the challenge is to move back far enough to see the big picture.

While the first track is in your face with its highly prominent bass and an odd fuzziness that feels uncomfortably close to static, the majority of the album is introspective, its songs constructed with care. Never mind sludge roots, the 2019 Baroness makes me think of an alternative rock band with a fondness for riffs mainlining on the Beatles until they end up as a combo of Radiohead and the Foo Fighters. These are big songs but they try not to be and, even four or five times through, I still think of this as an hour long piece of music rather than a collection of twelve songs and five interludes.

I first heard about Gold & Grey when a friend mentioned it after I reviewed the new Opeth album. I can see a lot of similarities in something this prog rock being released by a band who didn't start as prog rock in the slightest, but beyond the odd changes and contrary layers that link them, this is often livelier and more bombastic. Sure, there are inwardly looking numbers like Emmett - Radiating Light, but the power chords of Tourniquet just have to be accompanied by big light shows on a huge stage.

What impresses most is that they can follow a song like that with the calm, almost plainsong vocals and soothing strings of Anchor's Lament without us feeling jarred. Even the wild and experimental opening to Throw Me an Anchor doesn't seem abrasive, because by that point we've fully come to terms with the fact that Baroness play from as wide a colour palette as John Baizley in his role as cover artist. He's also the lead vocalist and guitarist and sole surviving founder member.

I have a feeling that I'll be discovering more new things in this album by a fiftieth listen. It's fundamentally rock music, but there's just as much pop in play as there is metal nowadays. I like that Cold-Blooded Angels can seem to be the former only to grow seamlessly into the latter. It even throws in some space rock sound effects for good measure. Other songs feature nods to folk, experimental, jazz, psych, ambient and even new wave. Broken Halo is punk at heart until it launches into a keyboard solo. Can Oscura and Assault on East Falls would feel at home on a krautrock album. Many songs highlight a Pink Floyd influence but, at one point, Borderlines suddenly becomes Thin Lizzy.

While my friend prefers this to the new Opeth album, I'd go the other way. I liked this a lot and expect to listen to it a lot too, but it didn't feel as consistent for me and that periodic fuzz turned me off every time it showed up. I like fuzz, I should add; I just don't like this fuzz. I'm now eager to travel backwards to see what Baroness used to sound like and there are four prior colour-themed albums for me to track down. Thanks, Mike!

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