If you’re looking for a new metal mecca, Savannah, Georgia is an unlikely location. But somehow the bifurcated town, home to both centuries-old plantation mansions and the Savannah College of Art & Design, birthed several forward-thinking metal acts. While Kylesa is often cited as leader of the brutal pack, Baroness has become the highest-profile band from the area, evolving from an acidic sludge metal act to a hard rock band that proves accessibility need not go hand-in-hand with wimping out.
After a couple of now-rare EPs (collected on the equally scarce First & Second), Baroness made its semi-high profile debut with two songs on A Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk, an EP shared with noise rock troupe Unpersons. “Teiresias” buries classic rock riffery under a dumptruck’s worth of sludge, while “Cavite” indulges in 12 minutes of animalistic roars, psychedelic whimsy and bludgeoning doom. Ambitious but unfocused.
The quartet’s vision began coming together more sharply on Red Album. Tempering the ferocity with bolts of melody, leader John Dyer Baizley (the only constant in the band’s career) writes songs with singalong tunes married less often to vocal lines than to guitar riffs. In contrast to his vocals on the EP, Baizley is more forceful than feral here; he lets the band’s performance speak for him. “Wanderlust,” “O’Appalachia” and “Wailing Wintry Wind” lay on the heavy while staying relatable to humans; the instrumental “Teeth of a Cogwheel” gets spacy and psychedelic while it rages. Baizley also displays some intriguing non-metal influences on the country-rockin’ hidden track and the overtly John Faheyesque “Cockroach En Fleur.”
Blue Record continues down the same path, with a few variations. Anthems “Jake Leg,” “War, Wisdom and Rhyme” (wince-worthy title aside) and “Swollen Halo” hold to the band’s standard of “heavy + melody = big smiles all ’round.” By contrast, “Ogeechee Hymnal” rides an elegiac wave appropriate to its title, and is followed by “A Horse Called Golgotha,” which adds an exciting element of NWoBHM majesty. The brief “Blackpowder Orchard” combines the amped and unamped sides of Baroness’ personality, but “Steel That Sleeps the Eye” goes straight for the ballad jugular, with Baizley crooning in an instantly appealing plainspoken style over massed acoustic guitars. While Blue Record doesn’t represent the kind of quantum leap from its predecessor that Red Album did from the EPs, it at least maintains the same standard of quality.
Baroness holds to that standard on Yellow & Green, an ambitious double-disc statement of purpose. Distancing itself from metal and putting its faith in the band’s innate sense of anthemic melody, Baroness uses distortion more polite than dirty, letting Baizley sing without gruffness and concentrating on songcraft over sound. With a surfeit of strong tunes to play with, the group alternates between classic, singalong rockers and experimental arrangements. “Take My Bones Away,” “Psalms Alive” and “The Line Between” give lighter-wavers tasty new candy, while “Collapse” and “Eula” evoke the band’s talent for sensitive balladry. “Stretchmarker” again indulges Baizley’s Fahey fandom. Ultimately, though, the tweaks to the familiar formula most sweetly satisfy. “Back Where I Belong” folds in psychedelic textures, “Little Things” hits a disco groove and “Sea Lungs” adds a soaring synth riff to its rock and roll blaze. The sound-shifting “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor),” the mostly acoustic “Twinkler” and the multi-hued anti-drug epic “Cocainium” indicate a budding prog rock jones that works to the band’s advantage, particularly on “Cocainium,” perhaps Baroness’ finest moment to date. Little on Yellow & Green departs significantly from the band’s primary sound, but subtle differences add more colors to the palette and show that Baroness isn’t content to simply recycle itself.
The vinyl EP Live at Maida Vale consists of four Yellow & Green songs performed for the BBC, hardly missing a step from the studio versions while re-injecting some of its heavy metal power.
Baizley is also an artist, providing album covers and T-shirt designs for everyone from fellow Savannah scenesters Black Tusk and Kylesa to Flight of the Conchords, Gillian Welch and Metallica.