Company: Relape Records Release: 2009 Genre: Heavy Reviewer: Etiam
A sonic adventure
Few could have faulted Baroness if they had rushed another record to market after the breakout success of their 2007 debut 'Red Album'. Indeed, that year it seemed as though John Baizley and company would ride the wave to fame through frequent touring, the critical furor over 'Red Album', and Baizley's sudden celebrity as the artist for discerning American metal acts. But Baroness were not to be tempted, perhaps cautious of the dreaded sophomore slump. Including healthy tour support of 'Red Album' they have taken a respectable two years to deliver 'Blue Record'. Not an especially long time, in the scheme of metal, but long enough to make it count.
A brief survey: Baroness has held the same tack as on their debut (unlike some other Georgian metal luminaries that come to mind) and as such should not estrange any old fans. Chances are they will attract some new ones, though, given the more mature and unified nature of 'Blue Record' that extols the vitality and vision of American metal. There is a temptation to classify the albums by their aesthetics--a fiery 'Red' versus a cool and contemplative 'Blue'--and the comparison does have a bit of merit. Baroness remains Baroness, though, so no great stock should be put in color-coordinated compositions.
Beyond this first impression, what is most striking is how Baizley now stands out as an unlikely guitar hero in a Guitar Hero generation. While other artists of the aughts have become famous for ostentatious technical wizardry--be it theatrical (Dragonforce) or clinical (Obscura, et al)--Baroness are just kicking out the jams. In their hands, the guitar is a dynamic tool that expresses a broad range of emotions from pensive acoustic Americana to effects-saturated adventurism and the unbridled joy of pure rock riffing. They are champions of the major modes, dishing up tasty licks and harmonized leads that are consistently gratifying.
As is their wont, Baroness have also included a significant number of instrumentals on 'Blue Record', and even those songs with lyrics are given to extended solo expositions. This musing was partially responsible for 'Red Album's flag in momentum, but no comparable dip is found on 'Blue Record'. To the contrary, the instrumentals here are actually too short, and the audience is left wanting more from the winsome 'Blackpowder Orchard' or the righteous first half of 'Ogeechee Hymnal'.
As for those lyrics, well, Baizley is still queerly obtuse, but he delivers his lines with commendable conviction. Within this Southern sludge genre, he is one of the few whose vocal lines are more than a monotonous bellow, and his self-harmonizing, with some support from second guitarist Peter Adams (who replaced Brian Blickle), are frequent and effective. Baizley isn't an especially accomplished clean singer, yet he has matured appreciably since 'Red Album', and his earnest effort ultimately tallies among Baroness' positive qualities.
The only real negative point to be made is with Baroness' transitions. Nearly all of their ideas are good--some are nearly sublime--but they sometimes don't segue into one another as elegantly as they should. This leaves some songs feeling a bit rough around the edges and, more frustratingly, fails to capitalize on some of the band's most promising themes to date.
In most other respects, though, 'Blue Record' delivers once it has time to sink in (this is critical). The production is full and lush--especially during the occasional triple Les Paul harmonies--with a tasteful and open percussion production. No oppressive triggers or omnipresent double-kicks here, nor the senseless cymbal abuse often seen in many 'post' metal genres. If anything, the mastering is a little quiet, but that's just another excuse to crank it up.
Altogether, Baroness clearly did their homework on this album, applying judicious effects to freshen up repeated themes (one example of many being the rotary effect that closes out the album in a reprise of the instrumental intro). Baizley and Adams also throw down a wide array of lead tones for their solos--from hairy overdrive to sweet cascading gain, raucous treble to saturated warm rhythm tones--so that nearly every song has something new to offer, making 'Blue Record' nearly as much a sonic adventure as a rock album. The variety never becomes distracting, though, as Baizley and company have backed up their production fluff with lively and consistent songwriting. With 'Blue Record', Baroness made the best of 'Red Album's intangibles. To take the next step--on 'Green Vinyl', or 'Purple Wax' maybe?--they'll have to focus on continuity.
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