Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Baroness - Yellow & Green (Album Review)

Baroness - Yellow & Green
Release date: July 17, 2012 (Relapse Records)

It's been a while since I've heard an album that I felt compelled to write about. In fact, I haven't posted a new album review since October of last year, when I boldly declared that Elder's Dead Roots Stirring was the best hard rock/metal album I'd heard in half a decade. Well, either my standards are rapidly diminishing, or we may be on the cusp of the next great era of heavy music, because as much as I loved Elder's album last year, I love the new Baroness double album, Yellow & Green, even more.

Funny thing is, I can still stand behind my Elder proclamation, because Yellow & Green is decidedly and unrepentantly not metal, and it only sporadically qualifies as hard rock. With the amount of buzz this album has already generated, I'm hardly the first person to make that distinction, but if it seems as if every critic and blogger is preoccupied with what this album isn't, it's probably because it's so hard to put into words what, precisely, it is.

In discussing the album with friends, the bands that have come up as reference points include the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Pink Floyd and Weezer. Those four bands don't sound much alike, (and none of them are metal, it's worth noting), but all of them were trailblazers in their respective genres. Perhaps that's why it's so difficult to describe Baroness these days. With their metal days firmly behind them, they might just be at the forefront of a genre so new that we haven't even coined a clever name for it yet.

There are certainly elements of established genres -- indie rock, post-rock, prog, stoner rock, even power pop -- on display throughout Yellow & Green, but Baroness refuse to settle neatly into any one of those specific categories for very long. Despite a 75-minute running time that could be accommodated by a single CD, Yellow & Green is presented as a double album. It's a move that could come off as pretentious in the hands of a lesser band, but Baroness have deftly avoided the common pitfalls of the typical double album: monotony, vanity and overkill. There's not a single song on Yellow & Green that feels superfluous or tacked-on. Every song is a necessary and logical step on what almost assuredly will remain this year's best musical journey.

The first/Yellow half is the more uptempo of the two albums. After an understated, instrumental intro, Baroness comes out of the gate swinging with "Take My Bones Away" and "March to the Sea," arguably the two most straightforward rock songs on the entire album. It's not until "Little Things" -- where a driving disco beat alternates with a melancholy, indie-pop chorus before culminating in a Brian May-inspired guitar freakout -- that it becomes clear that this is far and above we've come to expect from Baroness. "Twinkler" is pure indie folk; bump the harmonies up an octave and it could pass for a Band of Horses song. The relatively mellow vibe continues into "Cocainium," which builds to an epic, prog rock ending. "Back Where I Belong" continues down the prog vein before culminating in a gorgeous coda that stands out as one of the high points in an album chock full of them. "Sea Lungs" could easily pass for latter-day Mastodon, but the closing track, "Eula," is proof positive that Baroness have surpassed their Georgia brethren as the thinking man's metal band of the moment. I'm not even sure what, exactly, singer/guitarist John Baizley means when he belts out the closing refrain of "I can't forget the taste of my own tongue." I just know that I feel compelled to sing along every time I hear it, which is genrally a pretty good indicator of an awesome song.

The second/Green half kicks off with another instrumental, "Green Theme," which mines the classic soft/loud template of '90s alt rock to perfection. It's followed by "Board Up the House," a gem of stoner pop perfection that ought to make guys like Steve Brooks and Josh Homme kick themselves for not writing it first. After a rollicking start, Baroness reins things back in with a succession of mellow songs: the Radiohead-ish "Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)," the waltz-y "Foolsong," the synth-driven "Collapse," the artsy "Psalms Alive" and the instrumental country-blues of "Stretchmarker." Just when you're about to nod off, the boys pick up the pace again with the anthemic "The Line Between," which features another ridiculously catchy hook that practically requires you to shout along. The album closes with a fourth instrumental, "If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry," which, while perhaps a bit anticlimactic, brings the entire album full circle.

I'm sure there will be small minority of die-hard metalheads out there who will insist that Yellow & Green is just the latest in a long line of cash-in attempts by quality metal bands with dollar signs in their eyes. I'm certainly not above making such accusations myself. I took Metallica's self-titled "black album" as a slap in the face when it came out, and 21 years later, it still stings. But it's not impossible for a metal act to mellow their sound, incorporate a little melody and actually come out a better band on the other side. Clutch's gradual transformation from hardcore-tinged alt-metal to blues-drenched boogie rock is a prime example. More recently, Mastodon showed their softer side on 2009's Crack the Skye and travelled a similar path last year on The Hunter.

When I listen to Yellow & Green and the aforementioned Elder album, I can only wonder how well they would've been received in the early '90s, back when radio stations played rock music and people actually bought albums. The days of making a tidy profit from recorded music may be in the past for all but a privileged few, but I still hold out hope that this great country will eventually fall back in love with the electric guitar. If any album can rekindle that romance, it's Yellow & Green.

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