Despite outward appearances, life in a rock band (even at the most popular level) is rarely easy. For every musician who manages to make a career, many more fall by the wayside, and the road is beset with heartache, personal sacrifice and tragedy. One band who are more aware of this than most are Baroness, the much feted metal band from Savannah, Georgia, who seemed to be riding high upon the release of ambitious double set ‘Yellow and green’, only for it all to come crashing down following a near-fatal bus crash just outside the sleepy town of Bath in England. Frontman John Baizley suffered a broken arm and leg, whilst Allen Blickle (drums) and Matt Maggioni (bass) suffered broken vertebrae. It could have been worse, one or members could have died, but the trauma of such incidents long outlive the physical effects and in March the following year both Allen and Matt made the decision to leave. It could so easily have been the end of Baroness, but remaining members John and Peter (Adams – lead guitar & vocals) remained committed and recruited Nick Jost (bass) and Sebastian Thomson (drums), taking the pair out on the road the following month.
It has been over two years since the band underwent its painful line-up shift, but fans have been rewarded for their patience with the arrival of ‘purple’, a concise summation of the band’s considerable strengths. Internally all may have been turmoil, but outwardly the band are firing on all cylinders and incomers Nick and Sebastian have bedded in as if they’d always being there, no doubt the result of the large bouts of touring the band have undertaken in the wake of their accident. Featuring, as always, John’s stunningly distinctive artwork, ‘Purple’ perfectly captures the band’s muscular dexterity and tendency to experiment and the result is a record that satisfies on an immediate visceral level and which also repays more attentive listening over a longer period of time. Opening with the convoluted might of ‘Morningstar’, which has shades of Queen in its intro, there’s little in the way of preamble before the band pour on a mighty stoner riff and John takes to the stage with his distinctively melodic roar. It’s a bold, bright start replete with harmonised guitars and a devastating drum assault from Sebastian before leading into the latest single from the album, ‘shock me’, which appeared back in November. Opening with a short synth intro that, again, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Queen album, ‘shock me’ soon kicks into the sort of chrome-plated stoner groove which Baroness do so well only for the song to dash off in multiple directions with elements of progressive rock and psychedelia thrown wildly into the mix. It could all so easily end up a mess, but the result is a melodic gem that marries a memorable chorus to a varied piece of music that glues itself firmly into the memory. The pace is slowed a touch for ‘try to disappear’ which marries close harmonies with soaring melodies and blazing guitars. It’s vibrant, vital and exceptionally good, with the occasionally crushing riff rising from the surface of the song like a tsunami, crashing down upon the listener to roll them helplessly in the surf. Like its titular substance, ‘Kerosene’ is a blazing riff fest that draws a line somewhere between the melodic punk of Hot Water Music and the stoner rock of Kyuss, the band deploying hyper-precise riffing and brain-frying melodies in equal measure.
At the album’s heart lies the mellow, beautiful instrumental ‘fugue’, which mixes up progressive, ambient and late-night jazz, drawing the listener into the glistening, ethereal introduction to the remarkable first single from the record ‘chlorine and wine’, a track which seems to move from QOTSA rock to Smashing Pumpkins-esque psychedelia via classic queen pomp in the blink of an eye. Next up is the taut rocker, ‘the iron bell’, with its chiming riffs and harmony vocals. The most straight-forward track found on the record, ‘the iron bell’ recalls Smashing Pumpkins at their most direct, and it is immediately bested by the juddering riffs of ‘desperation burns’, which whip up a storm with their palpable sense of helpless anxiety. An album highlight, ‘desperation burns’ is underpinned by the sort of demonic bass that craws out of the earth’s centre to churn the bowels, and a series of riffs that are firmly set to stun. In contrast, ‘if I have to wake up’ is an emotional rollercoaster that draws the album to a beautifully broken close, with only the brief ‘crossroads of infinity’ left to see the listener to the door. It proves a fitting end to an album that mixes a sense of triumph with the lingering doubts that are the inevitable consequence of a life-changing event.
In the face of tragedy, Baroness have triumphed. ‘Purple’ is a varied, beautiful, brutal, artistic monster of a record that satisfies on every level. Where ‘yellow and green’ needed time to fully appreciate, ‘purple’ is a much more instant record, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t repay more detailed study. Potent at first glance, there are plenty of huge riffs and memorable choruses to hang on to, it is the little details, the swirling, psychedelic interludes and immense solos, that linger in the memory. John Baizley, meanwhile, turns in a fantastic vocal performance that is powerful, vital and wonderfully human. It is his wounded roar that anchors the album and gives it its strength, although that is not to diminish the awesome power of the music itself. It’s a late contender, but ‘purple’ is easily amongst the albums of 2015.