Review Summary: A highly suspect mix and a few other head-scratching decisions can't stop this from being the best Baroness record in a decade.
John Baizley and company have spent this decade wandering off into weirder, softer directions that have been undeniably ambitious, but often with mixed results. A life-threatening bus crash separates Yellow & Green
, though the two albums essentially share the same DNA, and while the former seemed to push the band’s limits on what the Baroness brand could mean, the latter seemed to be more of the same in a band that had never really stopped to smell the roses before, Grammy be damned. So when Gold & Grey
was announced as the final entry in the band’s color-based album series, there were a lot of questions for how they would deliver such a strong statement piece.
The answer, it seems, isn’t a simple one. And that’s not because it’s difficult to hear exactly what is going on. Yes, let’s get this out of the way: the mixing and production on Gold & Grey
is atrocious. This a maximalist album with a lot going on, a lot of the time and there are moments where the guitars are practically inaudible or sections where you might think you hear a harmonica or a xylophone, but it’s hard to tell if they are really there or if your brain is just trying to make sense of the fuzz. This mix is a pre-meditated assault on the ears. The band itself seems to start things off as a sort of shock treatment, as the worst offenders here might be the two tracks that start the proceedings off. “Front Toward Enemy” and “I’m Already Gone” are decent songs in their own right, but they will grate the ears and test even the most loyal fan’s patience.
Taking the, ahem, ‘controversial’ mix out of the equation, still leaves the album with some headscratchers. A good portion of the album’s 17 tracks are interludes, and a good portion of those are fairly useless. There are pacing issues, particularly on the run in the middle between “Blankets of Ash” and the first half of “Cold-Blooded Angels” or the fact that the final six tracks only have two ‘traditional’ songs between them, neither of which are the puzzling closer. With its off-kilter instrumentation and choral chanting, "Pale Sun" will likely be the most polarizing track the band has ever done.
And yet, despite the mix and the many, many questionable decisions, I have no reservations calling Gold & Grey
a triumph. Simply put, the songs that work here are the culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation and hardship. “Tourniquet” is a crunchy midtempo banger that sounds like a distillation of the many different directions the band attempted on Yellow & Green
, only better
and “Seasons” is the most extreme song the band have ever conceived, featuring a cameo from an honest-to-god blastbeat. “I’d Do Anything” is a spine-tingling ballad that any previous incarnation of the band simply wouldn’t have been capable of writing. It’s a wonderful display of just how far Baizley’s vocals have come since the days of sounding like an angry drunk on the streets, and newcomer Gina Gleason’s harmonies quickly reveal themselves to be a vital addition to the band’s sound.
What the band’s sound actually means is still up for debate, as the hour and change worth of music here wanders between white-knuckle mosh anthems and psychedelic litmus tests, with maybe even a bit of barbershop quartet thrown in for good measure (I am not kidding about “Pale Sun”). The oft-mentioned here experimentation has been the name of the game this decade for Baroness, but they are so much better at making things coalesce here than they ever have before. The different directions, much like the gorgeous cover art, help paint with different colors rather than contribute to a messy pile. I wasn’t crazy about lead-single “Borderlines” when it dropped, but it is downright transformative in the context of the album and a perfect culmination of the band’s more traditional elements.
While 17 tracks spread over sixty minutes should be taxing, it’s impossible to be anything but giddy when you hit play. Gold & Grey
has plenty of warts and stretchmarks (and that damn mix), but it’s an album that can only happen when a band has the maturity and experience to match its ambition. If this was it for Baroness, then what a sendoff this would be. But it’s not, though whatever may come after from the band doesn’t really matter. Gold & Grey
is one of the band’s finest moments and cements their legacy as one of the premiere rock acts of the decade.