YELLOW & GREEN: BARONESS’ CROSSOVER MASTERPIECE
I have two qualms with Baroness’ Blue Record: 1) It came so highly rated — a perfect rating from Decibel, 4 1/2 out of 5 horns from our own Axl Q. Rosenberg, and some asshole whose name pokes fun at a tequila entrepreneur named it his number one album of 2009 — that it wasn’t hard to feel a little underwhelmed by it after a while, and 2) It was a little short. Now, the latter isn’t a huge complaint — better to be compact than bloated — but Blue Record‘s brevity holds it back from being the sort of masterpiece some thought it was (like, you know, me). I still think the album is a magnificent piece of work, but it feels like it’s closer to “almost there” than “made it.” Baroness sounded as if they were reaching for something more ambitious, brushing it with their fingers but not yet able to grasp it. If they had a great album in them, it’d most likely be next.
And it is. Yellow & Green, the band’s latest (and yes, the dual colors denote a double album), is bold and sprawling. Whereas Blue falls just short of greatness, this record provides just enough to get there. It’s densely packed and carefully assembled, widening the band’s already-considerable aggregate of influences while still sounding uniform. Baroness never seem out of their comfort zone on Yellow & Green, even if they’re wandering further outside of it than ever before. That’s because the band have finally grown into the shoes everyone’s been insisting they wear and stride in them daringly and confidently. They’re the Stephen Strasburg of sludge/doom: they showed a lot of promise, then one day were called up and performed pretty much exactly as you’d expected them to. This album is their perfect game.
That being said, if you loved their first few EPs and the Red Album, you’re going to be disappointed by this even more than you most likely were by the Blue Record. They’ve pretty much ceased being a metal band, but that’s OK. Whereas other previously-heavy bands who choose to rely more on singing and/or melodies wind up showing how weak they are at composing them (*cough* Mastodon *cough*), Baroness reveal a lush world of consonance and atmosphere. While some of their trademark elements are still there — kinetic twin leads; bluegrassy acoustic asides; John Baizley’s trademark bellow is still ever present even if growls and screams are not — this is a big step forward for them. And astonishingly, they pull it off.
The album opens (after a minute or so of the sort of processed guitar mist that also opens the Blue Record) with a fine one-two punch of some of the catchiest and hardest-hitting songs the band have written: “Take My Bones Away” bashes its way through verses to a burly chorus, while “March to the Sea” backs a sullen melody with a sturdy backbone. The forward momentum is reminiscent of heavier ‘90s alt-rock bands like Hum and Quicksand, while the angular riffs and leads recall old-school emo and post-hardcore. All are welcome under the Baroness tent now. Just don’t expect them not to claim it as theirs.
Yellow is the heftier of the two, even if it takes a song or two for a breather. The rockers are all tightly reined-in, though, with everything working in tandem to best suit the song at hand. “Sea Lungs” moves back and forth between a Morse code riff and expansive, contemplative arpeggios before leading into a suitably Baroness solo. “Cocainium” starts out sounding like something off of one of your uncle’s Yes triple records with pot stems in the spine, then morphs into a snarling rock riff before ebbing back out. There’s a real sense of focus throughout Yellow & Green, which leads to better songs as well as better experimenting; the band know how to pull back before they start to meander.
The danger of meandering, like with most double albums, really comes into play on the Green half, the darker and softer of the two. But the band command themselves brilliantly, working with folk and bedroom indie rock without feeling the need to remind you they’ll get back to rocking soon enough. After wordless opening “Green Theme” — which sets heavenly, ethereal chords over an unnerving, dissonant ambiance before kicking in — and radio-single-candidate “Board Up the House,” the album shifts moods. The band become more sparse, the production drier in spots, and the atmosphere decidedly more melancholy. By the time the album picks back up for “Psalms Alive”, “Stretchmarker”, and last proper song “The Line Between,” you’re ready to be brought back up. But if you weren’t brought down, the album as a whole wouldn’t have been the same. Baroness sound like they needed Yellow & Green to be a double album instead of “We had too many songs and didn’t feel like editing.” It’s a complete thought instead of an elliptical one.
And that’s what makes it as great as it is: there’s dynamics, peaks and valleys, shifting emotional landscapes. Yellow & Green never gets tiring, because it changes. The things it forgoes — lower register riffs and screaming — are no longer necessary; it served them well when it did, but things are different. But as drastic a shift as it is, it still works under the Baroness name. It makes sense the band have evolved into this, something well-thought-out, tuneful, and ballsy as hell. Yellow & Green will anger many, but it’ll snare many more. It’s what the band are fully capable of, and it’s easy to get lost in. It’s a deep, intensely personal album that doesn’t pull any punches or pander. Even for a band that have been so lauded already, one could easily argue this blows everything else they’ve done out of the water.
(5 out of 5 horns)