Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Album Review: Baroness – Yellow & Green
Only a visual artist would name his band’s opuses Red Album, then Blue Record, then have us all guessing as to what colour was to follow. Go on. We were all guessing, weren’t we? The artist in question, of course, is John Dyer Baizley. He’s the man responsible for his and so many other bands’ artwork so, following the thought process that a painter’s primary colours would be blue, red and yellow, I plumped for Yellow. I certainly didn’t expect him to pull Green out the hat aswell. Of course, upon spinning this double-disc, I was naturally assuming Green to sound like a mix of Yellow and Blue Record, but I was wrong there too. Yep, Baroness have been experimenting… wildly.
First thing you’re going to notice is the vocals and you may balk at this information. There’s little to no snarls or roars (Baizley’s trademark bellowing howls of derision aren’t welcome here), the usual slathering of reverb has fallen away and a strong, doleful delivery has been brought into play. All these things bring the singing more into line with Torche’s clean, doubled-up approach. In fact there are several tracks that make parts of the album’s two halves work as neat brothers to Torche’s latest rumbler Harmonicraft. There’s no “Rays On Pinion” here, no “The Sweetest Curse”. Yes, it’s a shock. I’m playing it through right now for the umpteenth time and my face still looks like Janet Leigh’s when the knife cuts through her shower curtain.
So let’s start on Yellow. There’s plenty of old school influences here with a spot of Pink Floyd in “March To The Sea”, a dousing of Yes flamboyance and crude Sabbathian warble that licks around the languid psych of “Cocainium” and I’m even getting a King Crimson influence every now and again. It’s pretty dour fare for Baroness who previously have leeched innate joyfulness amidst their expansive constructions. If you’re looking for some of their signature clanging riffs and hearty passion, the closest you’re going to get is in the addictive yet crassly repetitious chorus, sweeped, looping effects and heavy fuzz of “Take My Bones Away”. In general terms, you’ll find a lot more clean notes here than ever before. There’s a dose of 60′s pop backing effects that walk alongside the folk acoustics of “Twinkler”, we get some 90′s indie-flecked shoegaze that punches its way through “Little Things” reducing it to a pretty uninspiring, insipid gloop, and there’s even a punkish gloom, a sonic curiosity that early R.E.M. albums boasted, in the driven pop of “Sea Lungs”. On the plus side, there’s plenty to dig on the rhythmical, rumbling gallop and reverse vocal effects of “March To The Sea” and in the dark underbelly of the 7-minute dream-pop of “Eula”, including a brazen, finger-powered wah-wah effect and a collusion of drum and bass aggression.
Turning to Green we find a work littered by space and plenty of witty, folk-fuelled pop. There are a couple of stars in “Board Up The House” and “Collapse”. The former is pure Torche with plenty of dirty fuzz, a kick-ass riff and a wired, dialled-in dual vocal whilst the latter is ripped with a dark acoustic grunge that softly squeezes layers of emotion through a backdrop of sub-aquatic, groaning effects. “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)” sways into view with a heart of bluesy pop and a fizzing effect on the vocals as, from here, Baroness carefully mark out Green‘s territory. Whether or not you are able to buy into the padding, languid pace of “Foolsong” or the sharply-plucked, instrumental lump of acoustic driftwood that “Stretchmarker” floats upon, will probably decide where you stand on Baroness’ softer side and genre-crossing freewheeling. For those who don’t, there’s a startling, pop-punk, twin-vocal attack (“Psalms Alive”) and a jagged, hit of Foo Fighters-esque alt-rock speed (“The Line Between”) to further confuse you.
I’ve always associated Baroness with bands like Russian Circles, Red Sparowes and Pelican, simply for their focus on a long-game of rampant melody and lavish structure. They have this uncanny ability to work from a subtle build to finish with a blood-pumpingly strong climax. Very little of that is left here. But to constantly look for what isn’t there would be criminal when what is there is so much more important. Here, they’ve created intuitive music that weaves in and out of moods, track by track. There is no plan, no desire to make do creating one style of music. It makes the album feel like a collection of lost songs; like they were created a long time ago but never quite suited Baroness’ style so never saw the light of day. Honestly, I wouldn’t have guessed the band in a million years had I heard this blind.
Ultimately though, the music feels exactly that – old. It’s intuitive music because it’s been heard before. Baroness have a good crack at seeking out an understated level of simplicity. Consequently, so many of the tracks emerge with just one trick up their sleeve. You can pretty much hear each attempt to focus on that one lyrical hook that defines the song. That, to me, shows the kind of naïvety that I never thought possible of a band whose past ingenuity has left me with goosebumps on my arms and a desire to immediately pick up a guitar. For those tracks here that do punch their way to the fore or, alternatively, simply refuse to be hurried along with their brethren, they break the mould.
Baroness seem to have gone through their entire palette creating Yellow & Green, their bravest and most honest work to date, but the end result is surprisingly lacking in colour.
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