It’s a new year and no shortage of new music! With all of the year end best of lists that come out, I always have dozens of albums that I want to check out this time of the year. Given that, I’m kicking off 2016 with easily one of my most anticipated album releases ever – the pivotal 4th album from the almighty Baroness.
Baroness’ release of “Purple” on Dec. 18 followed the 2012 double album “Yellow & Green”, 2009’s “Blue Record” (my most played album of all-time) and 2007’s “Red Album”. Yes, they have a thing for colors and each album cover is distinctive, created by singer/guitarist/songwriter John Baizley. The reason this new album “Purple” is so pivotal is that it comes after what has been a very tumultuous 3+ years shortly after “Yellow & Green” came out. The band was touring in England in August ’12 when their tour bus air brakes failed when driving down a mountain road outside of Bath. The bus ended up plummeting 30 feet down a viaduct and injuring all 9 aboard but miraculously everyone survived. Baizley, who was sitting up front with the driver got the worst of it since he was ejected through the front window of the bus and spiked into the ground like a football TD celebration. He had multiple compound fractures in his arm, injuring it so badly that it almost needed to be amputated. He has titanium plates, screws and yards of wire in his arm. He also badly broke his leg, spending months in a hospital bed and wheelchair. Former drummer Alan Blickle and bass player Matt Maggioni both fractured vertebrae. I say former because neither one is in the band anymore because of the accident. Maggioni for physical reasons and Blickle more for emotional reasons that have never been fully disclosed. The other member, guitarist Pete Adams, was spared serious injury and remains in the band with Baizley. A great detailed account of the accident and recovery period afterwards can be found at this link:
The band enlisted two new members, guys they knew and had played with before – drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist Nick Jost. While Baizley knew these guys were competent musicians and could play the music, the real question was would they all gel together as a band? One of the most amazing things with Baroness was how well the band played together as a unit live. You definitely should check them out next time they play in the Bay Area, they are a massive presence on stage and all great musicians. So now you can see why this new album “Purple” is so pivotal, two new band members and coming off of a life-changing accident. Not to mention the band’s sound has been evolving through each album, moving from a more aggressive and expansive harder metal sound to a more polished and focused hard rock for lack of a better descriptor. They have been building a larger fan base, and are really at the crest of potentially becoming much more popular. A lot of momentum was lost with that bus crash coming right after “Yellow & Green” was released. In addition to the new line-up, the band also brought in producer Dave Fridmann who has worked with many bands, most notably The Flaming Lips and Sleater-Kinney. He’s not a favorite of mine, but will he inspire the band to continue to evolve their sound in a positive way?
At the end of the day, the answer is a resounding “YES”! I had the album in my top 10 for 2015 even though it had come out on the day I made my list. After listening to it many times over the last several weeks, it has only gotten better. I’ll admit that I was not overly impressed with it initially, I really don’t care for Fridmann’s production. However, after half a dozen listens or so, I was able to tune out what I don’t like in the production techniques (not all of it is bad, there are some positive adds from Fridmann) and really just focus on the songs and musicianship. I am convinced that this album will be a monster when played live and will only enhance what was already a great set of material they perform in concert. There’s a lot more nuance in their sound now, which was introduced in “Yellow & Green” but more fully realized with the material on “Purple”. In fact, the album is so strong that almost any of the 8 full songs on the record could be listed as a favorite. However, the songs really work best in the album format; all played in succession vs. hearing them as singles. This is not surprising, since that’s a key factor when putting together a great album. Here are 3 of my favorite tracks from “Purple”.
“Chlorine & Wine”–This is the centerpiece of the album, placed in the middle right after the short instrumental track “Fugue”. This song is a juggernaut, it’s epic and uplifting. After I heard this song before the album came out, I knew the band would be ok. The video they shot with it reinforced the message even further, since you can see how happy and passionate these guys are to be playing this music. The song starts off very slowly, with some keyboards (courtesy of Jost who brings that skill along with his bass). Then the drums start up, along with the guitar/bass. You’re almost two minutes in before the guitar riff even gets played. But once Baizley kicks in with his vocals, things start taking off. Thomson does some nice fills on the song and keeps the backbone moving along throughout the track. Almost 4 minutes in before getting any guitar solos, which are understated yet still expressive. Then the song comes down a notch and Jost gets on the piano for a bit (which is a great element on this track). This all sets up an epic last 90 seconds as the band takes it all up a notch and we even get a gang vocal over the final part of the song. Epic and majestic.
“Kerosene” – This is the 4th track on the album, slotted right before “Fugue” which then moves into “Chlorine & Wine”. This track kicks in pretty quickly with the guitars, bass and drums all firing away in the first 20 seconds. There are some great guitar lines in this song, and the track gets better and better as it progresses. The rhythm is fairly complicated for a rock song, which also makes it interesting. Some of the best parts of the song are the instrumental sections. My favorite part of the song again is during the last 90 seconds. There’s some nice isolated guitar before the band kicks off into another group singing exercise. Thomson’s isolated drums at the end are a nice final touch.
“The Iron Bell” – It was very difficult picking a 3rd song since most of the songs would be great to highlight. I decided to go with this one since it follows “Chlorine and Wine” and gives you a nice sense of what the middle of the album sounds like. This song reminds me more of the old Baroness, it’s a little more straightforward hard rock. It highlights some of the great guitar work that Baizley and Adams create together. One of my favorite solos on the record starts just before the 3:00 minute mark. This whole instrumental section is what makes the song standout for me. And I just realized, again a nice ending 90 seconds or so on this track. Seems to be a theme…