Review Summary: what the rednecks in 'Deliverence' would sound like with guitars- really really good!
Ask any self-respecting aficionado of Metal music about the critical reception metal received through the ages and they’d probably tell you ‘none at all’ but if pressed they could probably give you a brief outline of musical timeline that goes something like this: In the 80’s Thrash Metal as paraded by Metallica and Anthrax achieved underground critical acclaim for technical proficiency and social awareness. In the 90’s Death Metal dropped the social awareness, largely, and focused exclusively on musical aptitude and technicality with the occasional, very rare philosophical musings of, say, Cynic. Nowadays, however it’s the droning strains of Stoner Metal that have Pitchfork Media and Allmusic guide jerkoffs singing the praises of such bands as Neurosis, Isis, and the almighty Mastodon- who apparently can do no wrong.
Now where does all of that leave the sludge-merchants in Baroness? The answer: On top of the body pile, this time around. I’m happy to report that Red album ( NEVER ‘the’ Red Album) is one of the finest pieces of Stoner/sludge wizardy in the years since Mastodon’s Leviathan. See, this band has everything hardcore and old school metal fans love (molten riffs, blistering twin-lead solos) and everything critics love (more fuzzy druggie atmosphere than you can shake a stick at, as well as artistically cryptic lyrics), but what Baroness really have that bands like Pelican lack is exactly what got Hardcore Punks going to Slayer shows in 1985: Crossover appeal. Yes, the disc is morbid and abrasive with heavily distorted guitar and pummeling drums, but it also has a pretty, luminescent quality about it lifted directly from the new millennium Indie craze. The sound is hazy but bright, and while the fretboard acrobatics singe, especially on tracks like The Birthing and Isak, they also allude to the pretty post-hardcore string manipulation of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate. To further the appeal to the ‘casual’ listener there are long mellow, melodic interludes with not but acoustic guitar and happy synthesizer, although they don’t serve to carry vocal melody, merely to hypnotize the listener into complacency before the next riff splatters their brains like a sledgehammer, this is used to frightening effect in Aleph. Hell, there’s even a bluesy all-accoustic interlude to break up the heavy with Cockroach En Fleur.
To make it all the more simple there is not a guttural or scream to be found here. That’s correct, every sparse, carefully chosen lyric is sung clean, although not always intelligibly so. Singer/songwriter John Baizley only yollers and howels with the conviction of a true good ol’ boy, and that same working class south aesthetic permeates the whole CD (hell, there’s even a whole song called O’ Appalachia for crying out loud). It would appear that although there’s no concept to be seen here, that same aesthetic has yielded a bountiful harvest of mysterious images buried within the sparse words, each only made all the more cryptic by the ominous but gorgeous album art (also by Baizley, an accomplished painter). It can get frustrating, but perhaps the best albums, like novels, raise more questions than they answer.
Legitimately, finding true criticism within the disc is like squeezing water from stone- doable, but almost not worth the effort. In the span of an hour the disc goes from malicious to mellow, to self loathing to self-loving and back in mythic style, but told in an intimate way. Don’t ask how it’s possible- Baroness just did it. They’ve openly admitted to having set out to create a classic album from the get go. As such, maybe such critical pandering is the only real weakness here- you certainly wont’ find it in the instrumentality or production. Every riff is meaty, hot, but with a gooey center to chew over in the mind, played on silvery-sharp guitar and a deep, bellowing bass (a middle finger to the Adam D’s of the world who insist that Bass exists to be mixed almost inaudibly and only follow the guitar line’s top note.) the drums may never pogo beat or double bass roll for more than an instant, but they pummel the listener enough to follow the soundscapes within intently. The songs all sound somewhat similar, but never enough to cause any real confusion except when picking favorite tracks- my personal choices are the three leadoffs, especially opener Rays on Pinion, but I could just as easily see someone picking Grad or Wanderlust as the disc’s best track. No it’s not quite as heavy or guttural as the EPs that preceded it, but Red Album’s got far better flow than either First or Second. Perhaps the only real issue I took with the whole thing was a matter of taste- there’s a great deal of purely instrumental songs for an album with so little singing in the vocal tracks, and as such, except for Grad, they can seem like filler sometimes.
Overall it’s still an acquired taste, but one pleasant and easy to acquire I’d say, and a fine addition to any metal library as well as the best jumpoff point for non-listeners to try and sink their teeth into Stoner Metal. If this record pulls enough Indie kids into mosh pits as Baroness would like, it very well may be remembered as the mellow man’s Reign in Blood. It’s not as deep or melodramatic as Neurosis, but it’s twice as catchy and three times as compulsively listenable- in my book that counts for something.