Call me crazy, but if we hold off for now on putting this new one in the running, I’d have to say that Yellow & Green is my favorite Baroness album. Of course I’d expect the first two, having attained a greater “classic” status, to have more proponents, as it’s only natural for a heavy band’s fanbase to find itself conflicted when said band releases an album (or in this case, a double album) that is so lacking in the pummel department that it wouldn’t even make sense to classify the record as belonging to metal or any of its subgenres. And this was exactly my sentiment upon first getting the album and finding that it had more soundscapes than riffs, more reflection than agression, more shimmer than gravel. But man oh man did it grow on me! And I won’t get into why because I’m not reviewing that album now, but suffice to say that compared to Mastodon and Kylesa, whom I consider the other 2 members of the “Georgie Sludge Triumvirate”, Baroness is the one band who I think doubtlessly excels in the decision to soften their sound. So, of course, the question on my mind and everyone else’s mind was, how would this new record compare?
Right off the rip, we see the hints of a “Red Album”-era Baroness, a Baroness that seemed completely absent from Yellow and Green. Sure, Yellow & Green opened up with a ripper, but “March to the Sea” was still heavy in a cerebral way, while Purple opener “Morningstar” begins – after some brief noisy intro – with a much more straightforward, and much more biting, riff, one which reminds us of earlier romps like “The Birthing” or “The Sweetest Curse” instead of the layered and textural subtlety of the songs on Yellow & Green. For the most part, the whole song retains this exuberant lack of reserve, to the extent that Baroness almost seems to celebrate the familiarity of being a ballsier band. Yet the fleeting moments when they break from this heaviness – a couple of quick segues before verses one and two – are enough to indicate that they are still moving forward, letting some certain vestiges of their previous album linger, and allowing a variety of influences to coalesce into an approach that looks both inward and outward, both behind and ahead. So, thankfully, it does not appear after all that “Morningstar” is meant as a declaration that Baroness simply hopes to regress to an earlier, more direct form of themselves. Even in the context of a relatively straightforward Baroness song, there are enough dynamic shifts, intricate guitar parts, and shimmers of sensitivity to clarify that even in their heaviest moments, Baroness have never had too strong a desire to be heavy above all else, or to rehash past efforts at the expense of advancement or creativity.
What’s not to be doubted, however, is that – even as swooshes and swirlies continue to fill up the sonic etherea – this album squanders few efforts to put the top-notch tandem guitar work of bandleader Jonathan Baizley and right-hand man Pete Adams in the spotlight. While there are plenty of dual leads providing some of my favorite moments on this album, the best example might be found in “Kerosene”. In addition to the song having a melodically perfect pre-chorus and chorus, around the halfway mark Baizley and Adams launch into this just-the-right-amount-of-whacky double lead that foils the melodic lyricism of the rest of the song by being angular, disjointed, and all kinds of fuzzy. It continues over a number of chord changes, and then continues even more, right back into the song proper, as if it’s not a Baroness song at all but more progressive version of one of those endless displays of guitar acrobatics which littered the most recent (and dare I say, phenomenal) release of Adams’ other band.
“Fugue” is the first (and I suppose only) indication that this heightened integration between the immediately visceral and detachedly contemplative might occur not only within songs but across songs, and at that it’s only for the duration of a two-and-a-half minute, instrumental interlude. It’s a nice bit of atmosphere, but more than anything it serves to segue into the slow, haunting opening of the album’s first single, “Chlorine and Wine”. Interestingly enough, the 4th and 5th tracks on Ghost’s Meliora (“Spoksonot” and “He Is”) follow the same scheme, and like “He Is”, “Chlorine & Wine” is this album’s ballad. Baroness have already proven they’re peerlessly apt at the modern, not-cheesy metal ballad, and to be honest I’ve not much to say about this track. It’s powerful despite its emotional appeal, and the high point is no doubt the double guitar lead (yeah, this again) towards the end, which drops off beautifully into a passage of soporific contemplation before landing on a bracingly forceful final chorus and outro.
And like Ghost’s “He Is”, “Chlorine & Wine” is followed by the only song on the album which feels like a bit of a throwaway. “Iron Bell” isn’t a bad song, it just hasn’t grabbed me yet, and perhaps indicates the bit of awkwardness, slight as it might be, that a band like Baroness inevitably confronts when constantly integrating a foundation in heavy riff rock with the constant refusal to be stylistically bound. I say let ‘em experiment, even if it means there’s a track I’m not sure about. Funny enough, I didn’t like “Mummy Dust” from Meliora for the opposite reason; it felt like the one place where Ghost, a band consistently successful and even exceptional at subtlety and experimentation, insisted on writing a silly, simple rocker, and in my opinion that’s exactly what makes the track forgettable.
But not to worry (nor need I keep mentioning Ghost) because boy does this album go out strong. If we don’t count the avant outro “Crossroads to Infinity” as a song, then the penultimate track on this album is “Desperation Burns”, and for my money it might be the best. For me, it’s a summary of everything that is wonderful about Baroness – huge riffs, yearning vocals, screaming guitars, and an overall sense of earnest, harrowing, humanity – and it’s executed flawlessy. It serves as the climax of the album, before “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain)” closes things somewhat strangely, but altogether appropriately. It’s a bit of a ballad, but it’s a bit of something altogether unique as well. And by Jove, is that…..the Purdie Shuffle!?
Ultimately, what I think Purple’s marriage of primordial heaviness with a more recently acquired level of texture and delicacy results in is a greater sense of the anthemic. Which makes sense; as I’m sure every other reviewer has noted, these guys (and thus their band) almost died in a bus crash a couple of years ago, so why not bounce back (and how impressively they have) with their most life-affirming album to date? Unfortunately, an indirect result is that it might be a little less my style, but that’s just an opinion, and as I’ve already stated, I don’t mind being in the minority when I say that Yellow & Green is my favorite Baroness release to date. This is still an incredible album by one of the best bands out there today, and one which I’m absolutely sure will grow on me in the coming months.