Before we go any further let us address the elephant in the room, the controversial mix and production of the last BARONESS album Gold & Grey. To say this was divisive would be an understatement. It split the crowd like a particularly feral wall of death at a Harm’s Way gig. The lo-fi, fuzzy, 1970’s sound was certainly challenging at times, as some elements struggled to be heard. But was it as bad as the uproar made it out to be? Part of the problem could have been that it was such a fine album, full of soaring epic rock anthems, that it was one of the only negatives people could latch on to. Clearly the mix was a creative choice and one I’m sure was made with careful consideration by the very talented Baizley and co. The question is, would they dare to deploy a similar sound on their latest album?
The simple answer is…hell no. Stone feels immediately like a very different beast to Gold & Grey. For starters, the production is crisp and clear but there is also a live, spontaneous feel to proceedings. This could be due to the band recording songs as they wrote them in a large, vaulted ceiling Airbnb. In fact, Baroness didn’t step foot in a professional recording studio for Stone. They did, however, get two of the best guys in the business involved for mixing and mastering duties, Joe Berresi (Tool, Slipknot, Alice In Chains) and Bob Ludwig (Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Nirvana). Whether this was a direct reaction to the mix criticism of Gold & Grey or not, it has certainly paid off, because the album sounds great and suits the heavier more direct songwriting on display.
The first single from the album, “Last Word”, is a straight up banger and will get heads nodding with chunky riffage that their Georgian brethren Mastodon would be proud of. Frenetic drums carry the song and are accompanied by some delicious harmonies between Baizley and Gleason. The track glides along with confidence and ease, as though it just poured out the group and was meant to be. There’s a particularly sick guitar solo which backs up this theory. It’s a thunder-bastard of a solo!
“Beneath The Rose” continues the weighty album opening, with yet more huge riffs partnered with a smorgasbord of vocals, including jarring spoken word, guttural screams, anguished cries, off kilter chants and yes, those incredible distinctive harmonies. It’s got more twists and turns than a Gordian knot, but it still flows, which is no mean feat. This schizophrenic trip of a song seamlessly blends into the more avantgarde and eerie “Choir” which sees the spoken vocals return but get even darker. It conjures up memories of Iggy Pop’s guest turn on White Zombie’s “Black Sunshine”, which is in no way a bad thing.
You could say that Baroness have gone back to basics, and in some ways, they have, but it’s not quite as simple as that. This is a seriously eclectic album. The band are constantly experimenting throughout, whether it be with the varied vocal delivery, atmospheric soundscapes, or folk music influences (more on this later). It keeps you on your toes, never knowing which direction they are going to veer in next, which adds to the energy and charm of the album. When listened to in its entirety Stone grips you like a good book, and the further in it pulls you the more hooked you’ll become.
One of the standout tracks is “Anodyne”, and while it only clocks in at just over three minutes, it packs one hell of a punch. This track could well be the calling card for Baroness in 2023. Stripped back and structured around one simple but catchy riff, it includes all the trademarks you’d expect of Baroness. Harmonies, choruses, solos, electro-acoustic sections, it’s got the lot. A lift pitch of a song if you will. “OK, here’s what we’re all about.” Boom!
The final third of the album feels grander and more intricate with longer songs at a slightly slower pace. They all build a great deal of atmosphere in different ways. “Shine” is surely a Baroness classic in the making, you can’t help but sing along to its catchy chorus. While it’s expertly structured peaks and troughs take the listener on an emotional journey. Seven-minute opus “Magnolia” starts with a beautiful combination of acoustic guitar and siren-esque croons, before crashing into a heavy rock anthem and signing off with distorted chords ringing out against overlapping vocals. “Under The Wheel” takes its time, constructing layer upon layer to eventually become a post-metal inferno, sounding like a long-lost collaboration between Isis and Pelican.
Album opener “Bloom” is a teasing glimpse to finale “Embers”. It’s delicately plucked guitar and hushed vocals is an apt way to start and end things, with its folk music vibe throwing yet another curve ball at the listener. While I didn’t expect folk music from Baroness, they do it extremely well, in fact I’d love to hear a Baizley and Gleason side project doing more of the same. It’s just a beautiful thing.
Herein lies the secret to this album; Baroness are very, very good at making music. They throw absolutely everything at the wall on Stone and the fact it all sticks is testament to the song writing skills and exemplary musicianship of this group. I genuinely don’t think many other bands could pull it off, at least not without sounding messy, chaotic or like they are trying too damn hard.
Stone sounds like an album that was made with the shackles removed. It’s fearless; happy to take risks, experiment and invent. You can hear the freedom of expression in these songs and the fun that was clearly had recording them. It’s not often you can say that about a rock or metal album, especially from a band that’s been around for twenty years. Baroness sound fresh, rejuvenated and energised. It’s fitting that their first foray away from the colour-coded albums should take a different route and new approach, but the fact it’s such a success could mean an exciting future lies ahead.
Baroness' Stone released today, the 15th of September. Head on over to their Bandcamp page above to grab it (and kudos to them for still being on Bandcamp).