Baroness – Purple
Baroness has had a fairly unique career trajectory. With each release, they’ve picked up new fans and shed old ones at an almost equal pace. Changing up musical direction can be a death knell for most bands, especially in the “heavy” arena. No, Purple is not Cold Lake, but it’s not Metallica either, despite the similar shift towards a more populist aesthetic. Baroness has always been more than just “metal”; classic rock, psych and indie elements have been integral parts of the band’s sound since the First EP. Listeners that have followed the band faithfully should not be surprised at what the ten (OK, nine) tracks on Purple have to offer, but should they be pleased?
“Morningstar” starts the album off well enough, and as one of the three advance singles, people have had a bit of time to let it sink in. It’s big and bombastic, though not quite as memorable a leadoff as “Take My Bones Away” or “Rays On Pinion.” Perhaps with time it could be, but the X factor that tends to lifts Baroness’ songs above their peers is either not there or buried deep. “Shock Me” scared the shit out of me at first, as the synth intro sounded a little too much like Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” – despite being a self-avowed Foreigner fan, that song is murder. Fear gave way to disappointment, however, upon the realization that it was also not a KISS cover.
Mixed emotions aside, “Shock Me” falls short of what it’s trying to accomplish. Singer-guitarist John Baizley spoke about how Purple wouldn’t dwell on the “mellow, sad thing” that were the emotional and physical scars resulting from the horrific bus crash the band survived shortly after the 2012 release of Yellow & Green. The goal was to write with a positive, up-tempo (yet still aggressive) perspective. “Shock Me” might check all those boxes, but the execution feels hurried. It’s as if the band wanted so much for these elements to shine through that they forgot to craft a great song to contain them. Again the potential is there, but like “Morningstar” it’s an off-the-wall double instead of a home run.
Other songs are more successful. “Try To Disappear” is an interesting change-up: subtle without sacrificing too much heaviness. New drummer Sebastian Thomson is more than able to fill the void left by Allen Blickle, especially when it comes to, well, fills. Along with fellow new guy bassist Nick Jost, the rhythm section keeps the beat but also keeps it interesting. While Baizley and Pete Adams deliver the power chords and hooks, Thomson and Jost almost have their own song within a song, not quite following the guitars but also never losing the plot. It’s as good a representation of Baroness and what they do best as anything else. “Kerosene” sees Baizley’s best vocal performance on the album; the chorus is huge and immediately sing-along-able, along with some memorable guitar fills/solos that recall Red Album and Blue Record. The well-timed break/synth section segues the song to a powerful conclusion.
“Chlorine & Wine” is where Baroness truly shines, in their duality: hard & soft, dark & light, push & pull. The first few minutes finds the band gliding lazily down a river of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”-isms until the distortion kicks in and Baizley belts out “When I called on my nursemaid/ Come sit by my side/ But she cuts through my ribcage/ And pushes the pills deep in my eyes”. The music is as regal and grandiose as anything they’ve done before, a proper setting for lyrics at once both personal and incredibly relatable. It falls short of perfection only at the ending, or lack thereof. “The Iron Bell” shifts back into high gear with a hard-driving tempo and Thin Lizzy swagger, complete with a solo Eric Bell would be proud of.
The earlier Black Album reference is no outlier here; Baroness and Metallica not only share a management team, but a comparable career trajectory as well. Kill ‘Em All and Ride The Lightning are similar in a lot of ways, but the latter is a huge leap forward in terms of musicality and songwriting. The same can be said for the transition between Red Album and Blue Record. Unfortunately, by all accounts they’ve also followed Metallica’s errant production choices a la Death Magnetic: Purple has all the dynamic range of a brick outhouse. It’s a disservice to the songs, which are overall great, and just confounding given the talent both behind the boards and in the booth. Still, one can take heart in the fact that the live show should give these tracks the treatment they deserve.
The struggle that brought Baroness to this point is what shines brightest throughout Purple. The allusions to fire and flames (“Kerosene”, “Chlorine & Wine”, “Desperation Burns”) juxtaposed against the positive words and up-tempo song structures suggest fire not as a destructive end, but a rebirth. The fact that this album even exists is proof of the power Baroness wields; its virtuosity is validation of what we’ve known about them all along.