Thursday, June 20, 2019

album review: 'gold & grey' by baroness

So throughout the course of my reviews but especially in the past couple of years, I've gotten comments surrounding how much attention I pay to the production of albums I review. And even beyond my lyrical or thematic criticisms, I'd argue production is probably some of the least recognized part of discussing music, or at least serves as a strong differentiating factor between the casual listeners and the diehards. And believe you me, if I could ignore bad mixing or mastering or simply was able to tune out where it was average instead of possibly great, it'd probably make my life as a critic a lot easier... but when you hear a project where the production approach matches what the artist is intending, you can find something really rare and special, especially if it's not overdone.

But I'll admit the 'overdone' question is a loaded one, because sometimes an album's mood and vibe is created as much by a producer as the compositions themselves, and finding the proper balance can be incredibly tricky, especially if you're taking risks behind the boards. Which, inevitably, takes us to Baroness, the veteran heavy metal act who delivered a few genuinely excellent albums and yet had to claw their way back from near disaster to deliver the phenomenal Purple in 2015, which damn near had a shot for my year-end list even as their single 'Shock Me' absolutely made it. But one of my main criticisms of Purple was rooted in producer Dave Fridmann, who I knew most for his work with The Flaming Lips where I could respect his commitment to massive atmospherics, but also was embracing an increasingly blocky, blown-out sound heavily reliant on clunky compression. And it's tough to pinpoint the exact moment where things started becoming obtrusive - I'd argue it was Embryonic in 2009 - but by the middle of the 2010s it was starting to actively detract from the compositions, and it did prove to be a small blemish on Purple. So when a lot of the buzz around Baroness' follow-up Gold & Grey was linked to how the production issues were now at the forefront with Fridmann handling production and mixing and where more than just critics were noticing... yeah, that was scary. But hey, it's Baroness - they're a genuinely great band and I was excited to see how new guitarist Gina Gleason deliver, so maybe Gold & Grey would turn out just fine?

Okay, I need to take a slightly different tack with this review - because much to my great disappointment, the production issues are here and they are absolutely the biggest point to detract from this album in a way that's damn near unavoidable. The problem for me as a critic is that everyone and their mother has already pointed this out, so what I'm going to try and do is explain why Baroness thought this could work, and why it fails so badly. And what's again exasperating is that there are other problems here independent of the production, enough so that while I'm not sure I'm ready to call this Baroness' worst album, it's absolutely the most flawed and the one I'm least likely to revisit as a whole.

So let's start with the production and ask the first question: why was this done? I'm going to give Dave Fridmann the benefit of the doubt and argue this was intentional - he's not an incompetent producer, and his choices to blow out or compress certain pickups amidst suffocating swells of reverb do not feel slapdash. If that was the case, it'd be all over the album on even songs where that approach didn't make sense, and for the most part, the ballads are allowed to sit in cushions of slightly psychedelic-tinged reverb and usually work - no, it's the points where compression is piled onto every tone en masse like 'Broken Halo' or the mess of 'Throw Me An Anchor' which is desperately trying to make that acoustic-driven hook work alongside really solid soloing, or phaser effects are tacked onto the drums like on 'Cold: Blooded Angels', or a blast beat passage on 'Seasons' is blown out to the point where a black metal producer would ask what the Nine Hells you're doing, or where the bass lead picks up so much grind that it clips in the mix like on 'Front Towards Enemy', or where the guitars are so blown out in feedback that not only does it peak hard in the mix, it drowns out any melodic tone. And when you couple it with how the vocals are rarely ever centered in a mix that can feel increasingly claustrophobic and contorted, compressed at every side with every tone snarling for release... I actually get it. You're trying to create a suffocating, titanic atmosphere where everything is sizzling and hostile and in your face, alien and imposing, even crushing back our frontman as our voice in this hellish maw - and I know this because this is analogous to the approach that Dave Fridmann took on The Flaming Lips' genuinely unnerving 2013 album The Terror, an album that was designed to alienate and succeeded more than I'd argue it gets credit.

But this is where you have to pay attention to the fine details, and what works for a deranged psychedelic rock band intentionally trying to piss off the audience doesn't always work for a sludgy heavy metal band that's greatest and often underrated strength are its melodies and anthemic hooks. And the most immediate problem is dynamics: when you use such blown out effects, even if you're intentionally trying to create a mix drowned in its own nightmare fuel, if you don't allow the larger mix to absorb those effects or give them dramatic contrast with cleaner elements, you don't establish context to create tension or provide a space where this isn't the norm - that's one reason why Swans doesn't just swamp out the mix in crushing heaviness, knowing that the progression is eighty percent of the battle to create menace and buildup. But acts like Swans and The Flaming Lips don't care much these days about being catchy - if you're Baroness and you want your melodies and hooks to cut through as we know they can, choosing to drown your vocals midway to the back, tack on reverb to them to further distort their presence, and then layer your lead guitar so it's more abrasive, blown out fuzz than actual tone only serves to weaken that power. And that's not getting into how it can compromise flow - considering how much Baroness gets a lot of work out of melodic grooves driven by a bass harmony, if it's then distorted to the point where it's clashing with the drums or guitar lead on feedback, it doesn't allow the groove to pull the song forward effectively. So the songs lose the ability to feel driving an anthemic, instead stuck in a weird stodgy grey zone where all the texture is there to make you think these are crushing and impactful, and the playing is as frenetic and explosive as ever, but the ability to surge is compromised. And this is where we kind of have to bring up structure, because if this was just a slipshod experimental EP where Baroness wanted to try this style for a couple of tracks, that'd be one thing, but this is a double album running over an hour complete with a fair number of instrumental interludes that have a fair amount of simmer but rarely deeper payoff - usually a minute or two of noodling on the keyboards or fiddling with the production tricks to tweak the atmosphere, and that's before that badly tuned psychedelic misstep of 'Crooked Mile' - and then you have the ballads that minus the compression and overmixed approach are able to make better use of the atmosphere, which can give the impression of inconsistent production song-to-song, but really just reflect using this blown out approach in the wrong places. It's not a exact comparison, but it does remind me of a similar messy production dynamic that hurt Tyler, The Creator's Cherry Bomb, and you'd think that is a comparison Baroness would want to avoid!

And now here's the question: if you sift past the production and try to focus on the underlying compositions, does Baroness deliver? Well, once you put aside how they've never quite been a lyrical band and they aren't here either - credit to the band for realizing how much of the production creates a claustrophobic paranoid vibe and how many of the lyrical themes circle around paranoia, despondency in the face of being surrounded on all sides with a very uncertain future, be they in more literal life-or-death situations or relationships mid-collapse - you want to find the tunes that best compliment the band's strengths. And I'll say this, if I'm actively trying to find stuff I like about this album, there is a lot I can say about the raw talent here: John Baizley can howl his lungs out with real visceral presence, the backing vocal harmonies from new lead guitarist Gina Gleason are a welcome compliment, and for as much as the production doesn't help them, I really appreciate how drummer Sebastian Thomson and especially bassist Nick Jost deliver some creative and propulsive groove passages. And when you get songs like 'I'm Already Gone' that feel a little less overmixed, even with the whooshing drum passages and overcompression, the grinding tune and prominent bass cuts through just good enough to make it connect - hell, I wish I could say the same about 'Throw Me An Anchor, from what I can hear of it the lead work is excellent! And I will highlight the ballads that are more heavily acoustic or leaning on keyboards like 'Tourniquet' and 'Emmett - Radiating Light' - yeah, they're blatant retro-psychedelic callbacks hammered into Baroness' regular formula with more texture than tune, but while the compression is more present than it should be, there's a little more atmosphere overall and the harmonies show through a bit better - the key shifts and solo on 'Tourniquet' make it an obvious highlight, as do the thicker harmonies and twinkling keys on 'Emmett - Radiating Light'. 

But as a whole... look, maybe I'm wrong about this one, as there are already a subset of critics who are praising this to hell and back and highlighting the production as 'boundary-pushing and experimental', as if it hasn't been rooted in Dave Fridmann's approach for the past decade and has only gotten more slapdash. And I'm frankly stunned that in certain quarters Baroness is getting as much of a pass as they are, especially for a project that is overlong, indulgent in awkward ways, and with every production element detracting from the album's compositional potency. But in a sense I get it, as I can see many of these songs hitting way harder live and Baroness is a solid enough stalwart of modern metal to deserve respect. But thinking about Gold & Grey also got me thinking about Metallica's ...And Justice For All, another overlong project fatally flawed by bad production, and while it got acclaim at the time, nowadays folks look back and can acknowledge that it sounds flat and the bass is mixed into oblivion. And when fans are already doing that now, and if I'm making any comparisons to previous Baroness projects... yeah, it's a lesser work, getting a light 6/10 from me, recommended for the fans, but if you have a sharp ear for production and mixing, this album will be more frustrating than rewarding. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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