Baroness – Stone


Baroness are one of those bands that receive universal critical acclaim and confuse as many people as they charm with their neo-metal art rock. The praise given to 2009’s Blue Record puts it on a par with Mastodon’s Leviathan as a contender for the defining metal LP of the 2000s, yet their brand of progressive sludge metal seems suitable for the hipster crowd rather than the heavy metal hordes. A case in point is 2019’s Gold & Grey record that won the highest critical praise but topped many readers’ votes for most disappointing album of the year. This gap between critics and consumers is what discouraged this reviewer from bothering with their music, much like the impact Ghost and Kvelertak have on those suspicious of the hi-brow art press. What can be so special about a band that worship progressive rock and enjoy indulging in Americana music?

“Fortunately, one man’s ignorance can always be reversed,” is a saying that nobody ever uttered until now. This vain attempt to create a new aphorism might contain some truth. Album number six is album number one for this reviewer, and it deserves the praise that many will lavish on it while enjoying their rainforest-certified coffee beans. The question is not, “What is this sound?” but “Why do more not explore it?” Baroness might have started as an art-school sludge band, but you wouldn’t identify their latest incarnation with hardcore or doom metal. The six minutes and seventeen seconds of ‘Last Word’ are exactly what the Smashing Pumpkins should sound like if they want to remain relevant. Crispy guitar rhythms thrive under the plectrums of Gina Gleason and John Baizley as Sebastian Thomson fills every available space with extravagant drum fills. The bass and drums rumble like Led Zeppelin, the melodies glisten like The Pixies, and Baizley’s voice hits more epic highs than a Bruce Springsteen concert. The passion is infectious – imagine a heavy rock version of U2 but with a metallic edge.

The hype is real and justified once you digest ‘Beneath the Rose’, which rocks harder than anything in the post-Jane’s Addiction era of ours that receives little acknowledgment. Here, noise rock guitar strumming and busy snare rolls give way to a forceful piece of grungy metal in a menacing tempo. The guitarists palm-mute their guitars like disciples of Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All debut and reinterpret the pentatonic scales like Mastodon. God knows what Baizley hopes to achieve in his Nick Cave-esque spoken word voice over this sludgy riffing, but it works wonders for the song. He could even be fronting a post-punk band in follow-up, ‘Choir,’ which leads on from the momentum of its predecessor like a fuel-injected engine. Listen to the thrust of the bass and drums as the guitars plot a different texture of melody and suspense with abstract pedal effects and improvised passage-play.  It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘Anodyne’ and ‘Magnolia’ take Venom as their guitar inspiration and repackage the sound into something that would not be out of place on an Arcade Fire record.

Clearly, Baroness discovered their musical calling years ago and do what they want with no fear of the consequences. Even the breezy folk serenades of ‘The Dirge’ and closing track, ‘Bloom’, take their place in the flow of the album like a vital piece of its architecture. Likewise, ‘Shine’, displays a strong grasp of sentimental melody, yet Baizley and co. know how to rip it through their guitar amps like rock gods. The former has a terrific voice for this type of dramatic rock music, just like any of the greats from the grunge era. The way he crafts a dual harmony with Gleason in ‘Under the Wheel’ will have you under its spell in no time among the grinding basslines and finale of guitar distortion. Might we call this art-school prog rock for metalheads?

With no attachment to this band’s catalogue and no exposure to their acclaimed albums, one can say with confidence that Baroness are an exceptional rock band with their guitars pointed at a metal audience. If this is hipster metal, it’s worth every penny of your gig-economy wage while you prepare to launch your niche YouTube channel about the impact of Afrobeat music on the future direction of math rock.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 15/09/2023

Record Label: Abraxan Hymns

Standout tracks: Last Word, Anodyne, Magnolia

Suggested Further Listening: Kylesa – Static Tensions (2009), Mastodon – Hushed and Grim (2021), Pure Reason Revolution – Above Cirrus (2022)