Seven years ago, progressive metallers Baroness were thrown into a real-life nightmare when their tour bus fell from a viaduct near Bath. Thankfully, everyone survived, but with some serious injuries. “My life got traumatic long before the bus crash,” frontman John Baizley says now, a brief, wry sigh heaving down the phone line.
- READ MORE: Baroness – ‘Gold & Grey’ review
Baroness’ new album ‘Gold & Grey’ is the last in their “colours” series that began with acclaimed debut ‘Red Album’ in 2006. In the 13 years since, they’ve pulled from a palette of sounds and styles at music’s heavier end of the spectrum, making records that batter and soothe, thrill and confound.
Their latest is also Baizley’s most recent opportunity to make some good from life’s downs. “Things haven’t been particularly easy for me – I’m not saying it’s anybody else’s fault, it’s usually mine – but the mind is a terribly powerful thing to contend and wrestle with,” he explains. Songwriting and creating visual art (you can see the frontman’s work on the band’s album sleeves) are his weapons against the inner workings of his brain, exercises that allow him to take the negatives he experiences and turn them into positives.
“Music has absolutely saved my life on several occasions since [the crash in] August 2012 and I genuinely, genuinely do not know what I would do without it,” he says. He knows the first half of his sentence is perhaps an overused platitude but he has no other words to express music’s effect on him.
Going into the record, the group’s leader set only two rules for himself, bassist Nick Jost, drummer Sebastian Thomson and newest recruit, guitarist Gina Gleason. One: no song should sound exactly like another. Two: nothing should threaten their identity. Whatever your opinion of the record, you can’t accuse Baroness of running out of ideas. ’Tourniquet’ opens with acoustic strums and melodic vocals that could kick off a tender folk song, ‘Borderlines’ weaves a bright, needling guitar solo between metal chug and ‘Seasons’ bears a humongous, dark, crunching rock riff that works in tandem with Thomson’s urgent, thundering beats.
Trying new things doesn’t always work out, of course, but Baizley saw the potential to fail as an opportunity instead of something to be scared of. “Every experience you have is a fresh one,” he reasons. “It’s a learning experience, whether it’s a success or a failure. You walk away from each one with this new knowledge that helps guide you.”
On this album, his biggest risk – and, therefore, biggest potential failure – came in how he presented his vocals. There’s a directness to them and some of the record’s lyrics that have been missing before; a raw emotion felt in cracks and yelps that would previously have been polished over. It’s perhaps most obvious on the droning piano-led ‘I’d Do Anything’, on which his voice rasps and breaks as he cries: “I’d do anything to feel like I’m alive again.” Coming immediately after a line about aching joints “breaking at the bone”, it’s hard not to connect the song to that bus crash seven years ago.
Baizley is reticent to pin any one meaning to the track, although he does admit that event in his life is part of it. “It would be absolutely preposterous for me to assert that I’m not still struggling with that and that isn’t something I’m still working through in the music,” he explains. “But it’s also hard for me to say that’s all it’s about – it wouldn’t be fair to the band because they weren’t a part of that experience and they are a part of the experience of this music.”
‘Gold & Grey’ marks some firsts for Baroness – their first record with Gleason, their first without Baizley’s best friend and longtime collaborator Peter Adams, and their first featuring the frontman’s daughter. The nine-year-old contributes backing vocals on the gleaming, emotional ‘Cold-Blooded Angels’, a song that took some time to come together.
Baizley would drive around trying to piece it together, his daughter beside him. One day, she started singing along and he rushed them both home so she, with her unperturbed permission, could record a take. “She just sat down and did the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” he recalls, his pride palpable in his voice. “She closed her eyes, no lyrics [in front of her], and right on the rhythm and melody sang in unison with me. I was shaking and crying so much, I couldn’t even get my phone out to get a picture of it.” The moment might have been a big deal to her dad, but, by his account, she was blissfully unaware of what he calls “the gravity of what she did”.
But ‘Gold & Grey’ is also the closing of a big chapter – that aforementioned “colours” series. Now, the future for the band is unknown. “What this album has done, very efficiently and in pleasant ways, is allowed the highway in front of us to seem very open and very free,” Baizley explains. There’s no telling what the group’s next record will sound like when it comes about because he can’t imagine it himself right now. Wherever they end up, be that simple and soft, speed metal, or maybe even reggae, it seems safe to assume they’ll still keep pushing things forward until there’s nowhere new for them to go.