Band: Baroness | Album: Gold & Grey | Genre: Sludge metal, Progressive metal, Hard rock | Year: 2019
From: Savannah, USA | Label: Abraxan Hymns
For fans of: Mastodon, Adrift, Inter Arma
Buy: Many options
Baroness are one of the biggest acts in all of progressive metal. Their first two albums (Red Album and Blue Record) are beloved by the prog metal community for their creative fusions of sludge metal, progressive rock, and some surprising pop sensibilities. Their sprawling third album, Yellow & Green, was a noticeable step down in quality, featuring a lot of music that sounded like attempts to make radio-friendly hard rock. There was still good music here, but it should’ve been cut down to one album. Purple, released in 2015, was a step up. It was a metal album, for sure (and a pretty good one, at that), but it still wasn’t on par with those first two albums.
So, with Baroness’s recent ups-and-downs in mind, I approached this album somewhat cautiously. The singles were okay on the whole. Some were certainly better than others, but this is a long record, so I tried to keep an open mind.
The music itself is varied in its quality. The addition of guitarist/backup vocalist Gina Gleason works very well. Her backing vocals add a rich, new character to the music, and she and lead vocalist John Baizley sound great together.
“Seasons” is an engaging composition featuring some of Baroness’s most ambitious writing yet, and “Tourniquet” has a strong melody and big chorus that carry it. “Cold-Blooded Angels” is one of the more ambitious songs on the album. It starts off fairly quiet, and there are some neat synthesizers thrown in around the two-minute mark. Baroness’s experiments with keyboards have been few and far between, but I’ve liked them; I’ve long wished they’d do a fuller integration.
“Can Oscura” is my favorite song on the album. It’s a wonky two-minute instrumental based around a weird, repetitious rhythm that has a strong krautrock inflection, albeit more metallic. It’s topped with strange, warbling synths that work perfectly. “Borderlines” is also one of the stronger cuts, and the last minute has some neat instrumental experimentation. “Pale Sun” is an effective closer; it’s one of the quieter songs on the album and ends Gold & Grey on a creepy, haunting note.
However, upon first listening to Gold & Grey, what immediately stood out is that this record sounds absolutely terrible. I’m not addressing the compositions—I’m talking about the mastering of this album. The actual sound of this album is complete and total shit. It is distractingly bad. The music clips terribly, and everything sounds compressed and washed-out. The guitars have a staticky buzz to them, and the drums come off as mushy in the moments where they’re supposed to be most intense. I don’t know what in the world they were thinking, but this is some of the worst sound production I have ever heard, especially on such a major release.
Despite there being quite a few decent-to-good songs on this album, there are also quite a few unimpressive and unnecessary ones. “Front Toward Enemy” and “Broken Halo” both sound like generic, radio-friendly hard rock, full of bland riffs and unimaginative melodies. “Throw Me an Anchor” is so terribly mastered, I can barely make anything out other than the bass line. Everything else is too dry and buzzy to discern. The chorus is big and schlocky and ultimately fails to land.
“I’d Do Anything” and “Emmet: Radiating Light” are acoustic pieces. The former attempts to be gentle and intimate, while the latter aims to be creepy and foreboding. Both fall flat: the music is tedious, and the lyrics are trite.
This album is also full of interludes that add nothing. As an hour-long album, I can understand tossing in a couple rests to break things up and give the listener a breather. However, of the 17 songs on this album, five or six are interludes (depending on how you want to categorize “Can Oscura”). “Sevens” is a neat bit of synthy experimentation, but the others range from unnecessary to bad.
Gold & Grey is a bit of a split decision from me, purely focusing on the music. It has a lot of Yellow & Green-style balladry, sprawl, and radio rock; but it also contains Baroness’s weirdest and most out-there music yet. I (overall) loved their integration of synthesizers, and their occasional integration of krautrock influences worked better than I would have imagined. I’d love to hear a consistently-krautrock-influenced sludge metal album. However, the mastering is so terrible that it detracts a lot from my enjoyment of this album. At moments, it was bad enough to remind me the worst hyper-kvlt, recorded-in-a-basement black metal I’ve ever heard.
Much like after Yellow & Green, I’m not sure what to expect from Baroness in the future. They seem unsure of where to go themselves, as evinced by the vacillations in songwriting style and quality. I could easily see them going either the pop-hard-rock direction or down the more experimental route. I just hope that they have better mastering on their next release. The audio quality probably knocked a solid 15 points off my final score.
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