An album of sadness, pain and residual wrath but, above all, acceptance and beauty.
“We’re headed for disaster.” It’s the first chorus of Gold & Grey, and an unraveling of the perpetual nightmare Baroness lived through. Torchbearers of the Georgia sludge metal scene, Baroness were well on their way to becoming the best rock band on the planet in 2012 when they released the scope-destroying double album Yellow & Green, a step toward a more classic-rock infused sound. They’d decided Genesis was just as good as The Melvins, gaining them a whole new fan base and a swarm of detractors, calling them sellouts. But those were niggling concerns next to the bus crash in the same year that nearly killed the entire band. The rhythm section of Allen Blickle and Matt Maggioni quit and mastermind John Dyer Baizley was on a long, painful road to recovery with an addiction to painkillers and an inability to play guitar plaguing him. 2015’s Purple was a long howl of anger against the world, primal scream therapy dressed up in ragged progressive-rock. And, after the rage, Gold & Grey is the phoenix finally rising from the ashes. An album of sadness, pain and residual wrath but, above all, acceptance and beauty.
Gold & Grey feels like the quartet has captured what they attempted to forge on Yellow & Green and Purple, matching the ambition of the former and the hooks of the later. Baroness might have the most “hits” of any modern metal band: monstrous fist-pumpers that spike the blood with Neanderthal adrenaline. “Isak,” “A Horse Called Golgatha,” “Take My Bones Away” and “Shock Me” from their previous four albums are equaled by “Front Toward Enemy,” “Seasons,” “Tourniquet” and “Throw Me an Anchor” in barn-burning fury. They firmly land in the ranks of all-time anthemic metal, and that’s just from the album’s first half.
Baroness were always pastoral (see the surreal bluegrass of “Blackpowder Orchard” from Blue) but Gold & Grey completely embraces their love of psychedelic rock, Hendrix and Cream becoming some of the album’s foundational influences. There will be no replacing former guitarist Pete Adams, whose dueling chemistry with Baizely is missed, but Gina Gleason brings something new to the table. Her harmonies give a heavenly tinge to Baizely’s screams and she’s found a sparring partner in Nick Jost, whose bass work is propelled to the front and rushes just as much as the guitars. Sebastian Thomson’s drums meanwhile sound like they’re about to come clattering through the walls. The interludes between sprawling mosh-starters are bizarre and welcome, creating pockets to breathe before roaring into the next anthem.
And the ebb and flow of the album, alongside fluttering guitar work, matches Baizley’s new mindset. Purple was wailing for freedom, shackled by opiates and pain. Gold & Grey is more melancholy, but welcoming. “If the dust in my pocket was silver or gold/ I’d spend it all on nothing, he whispers on “Cold Blooded Angels” just before a hushed synth lead sweeps in. Last album that might have been an admission to sinking his fortunes into distractions and intoxicants. In this brooding, brutish beauty he sings it with a gruff acceptance, no amount of money will cure his pain. But he’s found new strength by embracing his hurt.
Beyond the emotional evolution, much has been made of Gold & Grey’s production. And anyone complaining about the mixing is a cop, frowning at everyone having fun slinging shoulders in the mosh pit. If you’re really pushing up your glasses and going “Well acktually” during the closing solo to “Broken Halo,” muttering about clipping or cross frequencies, you should probably just stop listening to metal. That new DJ Khaled album might be more your speed, since sanitation and polish are so important. The mix is muddy, often frayed at the edges, but fits the album’s original title: Orange. The color of rust and fall, of things slowly falling apart and decaying. It also adds to the swirling psychedelic sound and proves to be the final step away from Baroness’ origins as a sludge band. Even progressive-metal seems far away from the starry-eyed ruminations dominating the album.
But these distractions are likely surface level complaints about a much deeper, nearly existential realization. One of the greatest eras in American metal is dead. Georgia sludge is long gone. The opening quartets from Mastodon and Kylesa, Baroness’ Red and Blue duo, and Black Tusk’s Taste the Sin represented a decade of boundless creativity and equally crushing heaviness that ranks alongside the second wave of British Heavy Metal and the original outpouring of Scandinavian Black Metal as euphoric accomplishments. But Kylesa disbanded, Black Tusk were flung into punk and Mastodon went the Foo Fighters route. Ignore the bus crash, the evolution, the sorrow, and Gold & Grey is still one of Baroness’ finest, and one of the best metal-adjacent albums in recent memory. With the weight of history cloaking it, Gold & Grey becomes the final, glorious rocket from the crypt. Baroness aren’t the last band standing, but they were forged and rebuilt in the harshest fire. And they are all the more triumphant for it.