Wednesday, December 23, 2015

album review: 'purple' by baroness

So here's something that really bugs me about the state of modern music criticism and journalism: the culture of clickbait. It's frustrating to me that lists will always be my most viewed videos, or where I display an extreme polarity of opinion, or that when I try to give an honest and thorough opinion, positive or negative, that might differ from the consensus, it gets branded as done so in order to 'draw views'. Trust me, if I wanted to game the system and draw in views, I'd keep my review videos at roughly half the length and they'd all be ranked lists of each song from least favourite to most.

And sadly nothing draws clicks faster than tragedy, and that's why I was very hesitant to open up a conversation about American sludge metal band Baroness... because inevitably, once you get past the great one-two punch that is Red Album and Blue Album and through the fascinating, if overlong double record Yellow & have to get to the bus crash. It's the point where many would be right to wonder if Baroness would survive, when three of the members were badly injured, two eventually leaving the band. And yet they would start touring again with new members and before long a new album was announced on their own independent label, reportedly a brisker affair than their last double album that was more of a return to their metal sound.

And believe me, I was optimistic. Not only is this sort of rebirth narrative always great to see, but Baroness are an impressive metal band, with an impressive skill for writing unique melodies and some thunderous tracks. What intrigued me more was that like Cage The Elephant, they had swapped out producers, John Congleton for David Fridmann, who is most well-known for working with The Flaming Lips. And while I had some very mixed feelings about this - Fridmann has been known to go overboard on the compression and loudness - I had hopes that Baroness would still deliver with a fresh lineup - was I right?

Here's the thing: I've been through this album a number of times and I'm convinced that Purple by Baroness is a great album, a damn fine one to end out my year of reviews - but it also should have been better. All the foundation points are here to have made this one if not Baroness' best record - and yet, there's a few little things that just hold it back, and the sad thing is that everyone can point it right out of the gate.

So, might as well address it right now: the production. Look, I have liked albums Fridmann has produced in the past - he's worked with Sleater-Kinney, he's a natural fit for working with The Flaming Lips, even when they can overindulge themselves, and for large tracts of this record, he does a damn good job. A huge amount of credit must be given to the new band members - Nick Jost and Sebastian Thomas are both great on bass and drums, with some stellar chemistry against the guitar work, which is as melodic and balanced against some insane riffs as always. And I really like that Baroness was able to balance out that great knack for melody they showcased on their last record into a metal framework - tracks like 'Shock Me' and 'Chlorine & Wine' and especially 'Desperation Burns' are able to bring that crushing, sludgy intensity with very recognizable melodic motifs and hooks while also still having that progressive touch. Hell, even more restrained tracks like 'If I Have To Wake Up (Will You Stop The Rain)' have great melodic touches coming through with the spacier keyboards and bells that add a ton of atmosphere - I'll give Fridmann credit for that. But you'll notice three things about the sound of this record, the first being that the cymbals are often way too high in the mix; the second that the guitar tone can pick up an oddly gummy quality to it on tracks like 'Try To Disappear' and 'The Iron Bell', and finally, the mix can feel oddly blocky, which means the grooves aren't as always as sinuous and potent as they could be. Some of this comes in guitar or vocal compression in order to enhance that slightly more alien vibe, but it can lead to songs feeling more cluttered and messy than they should, and I don't feel that highlights how strong some of these melodic hooks and solos are. This album is at its best when it soars and hammers down with complex but immediately catchy melodies - 'Shock Me' is easily the most immediate and one of my favourites - so it strikes me as a bit of misstep to take away from that, albeit unintentionally.

And that's the thing - while there are a few moments where this record descends down the progressive rabbit hole, it's well-composed and structured enough to never feel indulgent - i like how lean this record can feel, and John Baizley's howled vocals do a great job driving that momentum. I'll confess I've never been a huge fan of him as a singer, but with the right multi-tracking and hook, he's impressive. Of course, we also get odd segments where lo-fi filters and compression are added, and for the most part they feel unneeded. 

Now to their credit, they never take away from the songwriting and themes on this record, where in the past I'd be inclined to say that you could really skip over these pieces. Most Baroness albums are pretty sparse and oblique when it comes to lyrical progression, but there is most definitely an arc on Purple that starts from the first track. it seems to be framed through imagery of a relationship going awry, and Baizley trying to find ways to cope with that feeling of impending doom. And it's throwing him off, because while he's reached his pinnacle through aggressive drive, he's now being shocked by the yawning pit of despair ahead of him, something he's realizing he can't quite control - it's implied this girl might be suffering from depression of some kind. So he gives in and lets things go up in flames on 'Kerosene'... and then it cuts to a hospital and 'Chlorine & Wine'. A lot of critics have highlighted the obvious connection to the accident, but I'd argue it's a little more abstract than that, as both nurse and doctor seem convinced he's doomed and gone from this world and yet Baizley still very much wants to live. Death is dismissed, but he can't quite un-close his eyes and break free of that fugue state. Then comes the final moments where he must make a choice - return to a life that everything seems to have gone to hell, or return to a sleep where he can only hope that girl in question will be with him in some way. And then there's a final snippet, as a robotic voice squeals 'I've done it - I'm drifting into a world of limitless dimensions' - and I like that what path he chose seems ambivalent. Drift towards the endless sleep of death and whatever might come after, or wake up free, having gone through the fire and reborn to face whatever come ahead. Either way, it's a moment where you get the feeling the trial has been passed, and every road lies open ahead.

And I'll be blunt - I really wanted to love this record more than I do. The melodies and hooks are excellent, the solos and grooves have real potency, the newfound chemistry is superb, and the lyrical arc of this album really is satisfying. The problem is that the production just feels a little spottier than it should - definitely good, but not quite catering to Baroness' strengths the way I'd like. As it is, I'm not sure I like it more than the Blue album, but it is definitely scoring a light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, if you get the chance to grab this and are looking for some aggressive and complex metal, this will be right up your alley - check this out!

No comments:

Post a Comment