Yellow & Green
Jeff Pearson, July 23, 2012
The John Baizley who we last heard from on Baroness’ Blue Record, growling “All of the rivers are boiling with thirst / All my hands are covered with earth / All of my children that gnash with their teeth / Are paperback novels and dogs scratching fleas,” on “The Gnashing”, is gone. The blood and bones—this is a metal review, after all; there was bound to be at least one allusion to blood and bones—that make up the man remain very much intact, but since that record’s release in 2009, Baizley has seen a lot change in his life otherwise. He has become a father to a baby daughter, relocated his family and the band to Philadelphia, dealt with losing the band’s bassist, and just done some growing up in general. Perhaps Baizley is just tired of wading through the sludge that he and Baroness have, for so long, coated their albums with, or maybe the shift from the consistently stifling Savannah heat to more dynamic weather patterns has brought with it a change in musical mindset, but John Baizley has a new perspective of the world in which he lives.
Merriam-Webster dictionary has a laundry list of definitions to describe the word “heavy”. Upon reading through them, words such as “loud,” “oppressive,” “thick,” “coarse,” and “doleful” are likely to jump out at you if you are trying to put them in the context of music. There is one definition in particular that jumped out at me in thinking about how Baroness’ latest record, the immense double album, Yellow & Green, fits into the landscape of what could be considered to be “heavy” music—“deep, profound.” Where in their past efforts, Baroness would have achieved the heaviness they were looking for with down-tuned guitars propelling crushing riffs anchoring menacing vocals, they have found an understanding that a band can sound heavy through other means. I don’t want to make it seem that with Yellow & Green, Baroness has made the transition to a smooth-jazz combo—the record is simply more subtle in attacking the listener with the brutal flourishes of riffs that fans of the band are so accustomed to. It is just that the band has given the heaviness a context within the scope of the songs and the record itself, and it is with depth and profundity that Baroness delivers their latest messages. In some ways, Yellow & Green is a completely new direction for the band, but it is also clear that there was no other direction for them to go.
The Philadelphia-by-way-of-Savannah metal group has been consistently clawing their way out of the sludge since first arriving on the scene with their punishing debut EP, First. Each record has grown more and more progressive, adding new touches to their sound. Fans of the band shouldn’t be too shocked by the ever-present melodic vocals and dynamics in the instrumentation; these are things that Baroness has slowly been incorporating into their sound for years. In a lot of ways, Yellow & Green is the record that Baroness has been waiting to make, preparing their fans for it with each progressive textural layer on their previous efforts. They are trying to help metal fans understand that in essence, without darkness, there would be no light, and without some clean guitars here and there, the thunderous riffs we’ve grown accustomed to from them would not seem quite so thunderous.
Yellow & Green is grand in not simply length; the thematic scope of the record matches its huge timeframe. Issues tackled here range from drug addiction and mortality to redemption and sacrifice. Baizley has stated that the original intention was to have the record clearly divided into two parts: the heavier, straight-forward hard rock record and a bit of a mellower affair. As the band began working on the material that would become Yellow & Green, that clear division seemed to blur, and the distinctions were washed away. It was decided to simply let the music come as it may, a decision that makes perfect sense when looking at their career as a whole and the natural progression of their music in general. In giving the album looser restrictions, the whole thing flows very organically. In fact, when listening digitally, Yellow & Green plays more like one long record as opposed to two separate sections.
Yellow begins with the instrumental “Yellow Theme,” a short introduction piece which acquaints the listener with imagery of darkness looming beneath something which could inherently be considered beautiful. This concept is prevalent in most of Baroness’ artwork as well, of which Baizley himself is the incredibly skilled artist. On the intricate, softly-colored cover of Yellow & Green, women with distant, peaceful gazes hold knives to the throats of swans, highlighting the violence and dark conceptual ideals that lurk beneath the–at times–lush presentation of the record. As the last notes of “Yellow Theme” fade away, a deep, aggressive opening guitar riff of “Take My Bones Away” roils the somewhat serene surface that has been created, showing the contrasting elements right off the bat. With a distinguished howl, Baizley sings, “You lead the way / I’ll follow,” likely an indication of his new family situation, or perhaps a proclamation from Baroness’ fans on this new direction. The track plows forward into a defiantly hook-driven chorus, fully ushering Baroness into the ranks of hard-rock royalty.
“March To The Sea” opens with a solemn, melodic guitar line used as an anchor throughout to connect the deeply personal lyrical content to the chugging guitars during the bulk of the song. Baizley sings of profound loss of both self and those around him, mourning, “Sweet morphine, you’ve taken all of me / Let me know when you will let me go / Heroin, where did you take my friend? / Tell me why these ropes are hanging high.” Out of the chorus bursts Baizley and Peter Adams’ dual guitar-assault, toeing the line between both punishing ferocity and melodic immediacy. This is just the first example on Yellow & Green of guitars that would make Dave Murray and Adrian Smith blush. Yellow plugs along with “Little Thing” and “Twinkler,” both mellower affairs—the latter’s peaceful acoustic and clean guitars lilt atop a hornet-like guitar drone, and the former has on display a keen sense of patience and melody, qualities of songwriting often overlooked within the metal community.
“Cocainium” quickly blasts into a groove, Allen Bickle lightly rapping the drum line as affected guitars advance in syncopation, and spacy keyboards fit for any classic Pink Floyd record descend through the industrial low-end. The track is a definite highlight of Yellow, a perfect example of the dynamic the band has discovered in using lightness to show true dark; as Baizley sings “Put me to pasture / I can’t stand the sight or the smell / It’s getting harder and harder and harder and harder to tell,” over the avant-psych groove Baroness has created, the idea has never been more prevalent on the record. Yellow & Green has richly introspective lyrical content, which is part of what gives the record its heaviness—the weight which the words bring to Baizley’s life is evident, and you can practically feel the release it gives him to sing “It took me so many years to get out of here / Now I’m back where I belong / Next to you / Stuck to you,” on “Back Where I Belong.” Yellow is capped off “Eula,” nearly seven minutes in length, showcasing and encapsulating all of the atmospheric and lyrical themes heard prior throughout the record. The song tumbles at you like an avalanche, starting as a distant cry; before you know it, however, you’re drowning in pitch-shifted, delayed guitars and heavy rhythms, Baizley shouting, “When our lambs and lions made / Debts no righteous man can pay / It’s our own blood.” Perhaps Yellow serves as his way of showing his crimes, and Green is the blood with which Baizley plans to repay those debts.
Much like Yellow, Green is kicked off with its own theme, a way of embodying the sounds and moods that will be heard henceforth. As soon as Bickle’s explosive drum fill ruptures the speakers and huge, anthemic guitar solos shower the listener, “Green Theme” can be summed up with one word: triumph. In fact, Green as a whole has that feeling of overcoming something, slightly more celebratory in nature than Yellow. “Board Up The House” has a driving, fist-pump inducing rhythm and scream-it-to-the-heavens chorus that is likely to remain in your head long after Yellow & Green has run its course. The chill bumps that are raised with the laudatory track remained raised through the duration of the tranquil Green. “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)” is filled to the brim with captivating guitar riffs from Baizley and Adams, underscored by a mature and intricate groove played by Bickle.
As Green unfolds itself with tracks like “Foolsong” and “Psalms Alive,” you are given a glimpse of the more restrained, progressive side of Baroness. Whether the restraints were lifted on the division of the two records or not, Green is definitely the more placid side of the album. Look no further than the track “Stretchmarker,” which is among the biggest risks the band has ever taken. It is a largely acoustic instrumental, very much along the lines of what heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath did with tracks like “Laguna Sunrise” and “Fluff.” It is a gorgeous accomplishment for the band and a sign of how they have grown. The record’s closing numbers, “The Line Between,” the most propulsive track on Green, into the instrumental “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry,” serve as the final suite to the sprawling double album. On “The Line Between,” Baizley bellows for one final time, “Feel the light of day, feel it fade away / Walk the line between the righteous and the wicked / And tomorrow I’ll be gone.” Baroness has walked this line for the entire span of their nearly ten-year career, progressing from sludge-trudging metal mythologists to introspective and artful hard rockers, and for the meantime has seemed to settle on the righteous side of things.
What Baroness has accomplished is quite the feat, no matter how you look at it. They have simultaneously reinvented themselves as a band, questioned fans’ devotion, and penned a completely consistent record at a staggering seventy-five minutes in length. What’s more is that with the redefinition of their band identity, they have redefined what it means to make heavy music. For every heavy metal traditionalist whose feathers they may have ruffled with this record, they will surely pick up a handful of rock enthusiasts as fans who may have never had Baroness on their radar. With Yellow & Green, they have transcended the confines of the heavy metal genre, and made a timeless rock and roll record that will propel them to new heights. Perhaps heights that only few metal bands have seen before.