Monday, December 14, 2015

Album Review: Baroness - Purple

Not many bands have been gaining as much steam in recent years as Baroness. As they have traversed the rainbow of album colors, they have also expanded their sludge sound to take in pieces of classic rock and psychedelica, turning their music into something that approximates what Mastodon has tried and failed to achieve. They can write gritty, soulful music that is both powerful and beautiful. I may not yet have found a record of theirs that I can latch onto and claim myself as a fan, but I can see from afar what they are doing, and appreciate it all the same.

With "Purple", we see Baroness go even further in coalescing around an identity that dirties up classic rock in a way that I'm not sure anyone else has discovered. As the preview tracks were unveiled, they struck me as being a massive step forward for the band, and convinced me that this time I had to give the new album a real chance to win me over.

"Morningstar" opens things off with a flair. After a few seconds of quiet buildup, the riff jumps from the speakers with tactile power, and the percussion skitters along with the loose energy of an unhampered player. All of that builds to a massive release in the chorus, where the vocals smooth out just enough to make the simple melody echo in your head. It's a nearly perfect opener, the kind of song that is both heavy, musically involved, and surface-level appealing. That's the Baroness formula, and when it works as well as it did here, it kills.

"Shock Me" keeps the train rolling, with a riff that feels like slowed down black metal, and another chorus that is slyly anthemic. These are songs that I could hear a crowd in a dark venue singing back to the band, but despite that, there isn't even a hint of pop in the melodies to make you doubt that this is at heart classic rock. Finding that balance isn't easy at all. And when Baroness tosses off those tracks, and then follows with the sludgy dance track "Try To Disappear", I'm left shaking my head that this is the same band I was remembering from my past experiences.

We get some interesting detours along the way. The aforementioned track has an acoustic guitar that pops up to give texture to the chorus, an then we get "Kerosene", which could have been a Foo Fighters song, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

After a short instrumental, "Chlorine & Wine" shows the more progressive part of the band's sound, expanding out to six minutes of music that covers soft jazz rhythms and driving rock and roll. There is some beautiful clean guitar playing in the introduction to the song that sets the stage for the increasing grit the band piles on. The strings that pop up in the background during the instrumental section are such a perfect touch that most bands would be afraid of including, because it could be considered too beautiful for rock and roll.

That feeling doesn't last, as "The Iron Bell" is a driving rocker, and "Desperation Burns" is the heaviest song on the record. But even there, the balance between heavy guitars and subtle melodies is strong enough that it doesn't feel like a song that was put there just to appease heavy rock fans. Frankly, if they don't like the softer, sprawling approach of "If I Have To Wake Up - Would You Stop The Rain", with the glorious melodic buildups, they should go back to listening to bands that share the collective power of one brain between all the members. "Purple" isn't meant for them.

With all of that being said, I wouldn't be giving an honest opinion if I didn't mention the album's one, glaring fault. I don't consider myself an audiophile, and I don't require perfection from the music I listen to, but the production of "Purple" is a disaster. There's a film of grime hanging over all these tracks that comes from the rampant over-compression of the music into a thin blanket of sound. The nature of the music makes it less obvious than it was on Metallica's failure, "Death Magnetic", but this is nearly as poorly executed. When the faint hints of acoustic guitar or strings come in, they sound as though they too are running through a cranked Marshall amp. It's a shame, because there's a lot of detail work that is lost and inaudible.

Production issues aside, let's say this about "Purple"; Baroness has taken such a massive leap in their songwriting with this album that they have catapulted themselves into another realm. This is the album they've been trying to make, and now that it's all fallen into place, Baroness has made the album that should take their career to the next level. If Mastodon is huge based on their mediocre records, "Purple" shows that Baroness should have that level of fame and acclaim. This is without a shred of doubt Baroness' best album yet, and it's one that has even converted me. Kudos, Baroness, you've done good.

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