Remembering Red: Baroness’ Best Turns Ten
In September 2007, I was a lad of 15 in the process of developing a deeper understanding of metal. At the time, Baroness was on tour to support their then-newly released Red Album. As they were making a Louisville stop, I journeyed down to the notoriously grubby Keswick Democratic Club one muggy Saturday night to see them. I’d heard of Baroness before, but I’d never heard them. So, I was going on name alone.
After a few decent (but forgettable) locals, Baroness took the stage and played Red Album in its entirely. I was floored: I had expected a heavy, oppressive doom show, but what I received was grandiose rock fury that shook the KDC from its worn linoleum floors to the decaying ceiling. It was an arena-size experience, but totally compressed. I left that night with a Red Album CD -- it remained in constant rotation for the remainder of the year.
Listening to Red Album again a decade later, I’ve realized it was never meant to be considered a “metal” record. Baroness had started as a “sludge” band before that term lost most of its credibility or meaning. Listen to it with the intention of hearing a metal record, and you may be disappointed. The production is incredibly clean with none of the grime and grit that make a good sludge record. And while at the fore in the mix, the guitars have a fairly mild tone -- not the oceanic weight of bands like Isis or Neurosis.
As a rock album, however, Red Album sounds as relevant today as a decade ago. There’s a reason why I listed Baroness as the foremost influence in my review of Bask’s terrific new album earlier this year. Red Album is a bold, majestic American rock album -- the type that seemed to be going out of style in 2007. It’s riff after riff after riff: the key licks to “The Birthing” and “Isak” were actually touchstones in my early guitar playing. J.D. Baizley and Brian Blickle’s playing on Red Album is tight, tuneful, and virtuosic. The moments when the metal influences shine through serve not a heavy purpose, but rather a melodic one, such as the excellent dueling guitars on “Isak.”
(In talking about Bask, I mentioned that they were “heavy without being brutal.” Red Album is the Ur-Example of this: all jubilation and triumph without the darkness or brooding lurking at the horizons of metal proper).
To be sure, Red Album was of its time. I wrote last year about the “beard metal” revolution that began around late 2005 and 2006 with the advent of The Sword, Saviours, and other retro-metal acts that spawned a legion of imitators and created an entirely new sub-scene of metal adherents (beards, stovepipe jeans, flannel, Pabst Blue Ribbon, etc.). For me, Red Album represents an important tipping point in the “beard” trend: the point at which “beard” culture expanded out of metal and into more conventional heavy rock. It is quite possible that the conversion of many metal acts toward more straightforward rock music may have its precedent in Red Album.
Consider Mastodon. Though they had been moving in a more melodic direction for some time (and likely would have continued to do so), the gulf between the more conventional metal of 2006’s Blood Mountain and the prog-rock of 2009’s Crack the Skye is quite obvious. Perhaps the success of Red Album from a band they’d had ties to in the past may have convinced them that they could take a more rock ‘n roll direction without sacrificing their fanbase. And, Mastodon’s not the only one: consider Nachtmystium’s flirtations with rock modalities on 2008’s Assassins, or the subsequent rise of bands that neatly flirted at the border of metal and rock like Kylesa and Red Fang.
I still return to Red Album every now and again, even if it doesn’t have quite the magic now as it did when I was 15. To be honest, I feel like Red Album may have been the end of the line for my interest in Baroness: with each subsequent album, I found myself growing less and less interested. Maybe I felt like Red Album’s spontaneity was gone, a flash-in-the-pan that could only have happened in 2007 and metalheads were just beginning to realize that there was no shame in revisiting rock. Whereas Red Album came out of nowhere, the other “colors” just seemed like revisiting the same, even as the band achieved greater degrees of critical praise. As my tastes in music broadened with age, I often found myself gravitating more toward successor bands, like Bask, or those artists that had influenced Baroness to begin with, like Earth or Crazy Horse.
However, even in 2017, in today’s jaded post-hipster/post-everything musical climate, Red Album remains an excellent slab of unfiltered American rock music. This was an album that demonstrated a transition in a scene, and can still work as a unifying force. Metalheads can still appreciate the meaty riffs, dueling guitars, and giant production values, while fans of rock can take pleasure in the intricate vocal and guitar harmonies and emphasis on melody. For my money, it’s still the best record in the Baroness catalog. Even if it may not be as “fresh” to me as it was in 2007, it still takes me back to that hot night at the KDC, watching four sweaty men at the height of their abilities put on one hell of a rock show.