July 17, 2012; Relapse
If there's anything that'll seriously rankle metal elitists, it's any suggestion that one of their favorite bands is getting bored with having to be pigeonholed as metal. Blame the wave of extreme (and not unjustified) butthurt following Metallica's descent into Bob Rock-produced commercially viable hard rock--for a long time after that sordid episode, metal bands were largely scared shitless of showing any inclination of going soft, even as they tried to quietly incorporate more melody and depth into their sonic formula. However as a new wave of fanbase have discovered (or rediscovered) metal--a combination of mature adults who came back to the primal thrills of the genre after leaving it sometime after their adolescence, and younger hipsters who namecheck shoegaze-glazed black metal and sludgy riff throwbacks in the same paragraph as prime-era Sabbath and Motorhead--and have largely shoved the old loud/fast/heavy-at-all-times "authenticity" requirement to the wayside, a lot of bands have loosened up and started experimenting a bit more or branched out under different monikers to explore this outlet.
This is largely a good thing, but the outcomes are predictably uneven. Sometimes the results are great, sometimes outright terrible, but more often than not they are simply lukewarm. Opeth's recent retro-prog direction comes to mind. So do Baroness' Athens, GA peers Mastodon.
Now I realize that our blog named Crack the Skye as one of the best albums of the 2000's, and I'm not here to argue with that judgment. But for me it marks the point where one of my favorite bands started jumping cartilaginous fish, and they were already seriously testing my goodwill with some of Blood Mountain's proggy digressions and goofy lyrics. I didn't like Crack the Skye at all, and I disliked 2011's The Hunter with its milquetoast-yet-trying-hard-to-be-quirky Adult Swim metal angle even more. Perhaps the reason for this was that they had lost their prior gifts in the process of leaving their tech/sludge roots behind, or they had just defined their niche so well that trying to branch out was bound to gut their sonic impact in some way. Whatever. Wasn't feeling it.
So when there was talk in interviews with lead guitarist/vocalist John Baizley of expanding Baroness' Southern-fried hybrid of classic Thin Lizzy-esque metal with a twist of sludge and punk into new territory, I was getting pretty suspicious that the band might lose it and that the special sauce that made both Red Album and Blue Record two of the best guitar-centric albums in the past few years was not going to be in evidence. AND on top of that it was going to be a double album, a classic sign of either supreme self-indulgence or throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks (often both).
I needn't have worried.
Yes, at 75 minutes and two discs, Yellow & Green is a bit lengthy at first go. And nothing here has quite the intensity of "Isak" or the instant earworm quality of half of Blue Record. But if this somehow qualifies as a disappointment (and yes there's already been a fair amount of backlash), then I can't fucking wait to hear what a failure from this band would sound like because Yellow & Green lands easily in best of the year turf. Period. Full stop.
If you liked Blue Record you'll feel right at home with Yellow, as it's a pretty organic progression of that album's excellent embrace of melody and hooks with meaty riffs and the best twin-guitar attack you'll hear today. Yet there's plenty of new tricks here, showcased to winning form with the best song on the release, "Eula"--a sweeping near-ballad that exudes the kind of murky grandeur that Mastodon used to excel in and features a bracing vocal performance from Baizley, who has tamed his midrange bellow into a fiercely emotive, sometimes multi-tracked instrument this time around. Then you have "March to the Sea," a quasi-rewrite of my favorite jam from Blue "The Sweetest Curse," this time backed with what sounds like cello (!)--a kickass combination. "Cocainium" starts with some dreamy keyboard-driven ambience and stretches out with ghostly vocals and a driving pulse courtesy of underrated drummer Allen Blickle. "Take My Bones Away" is the obvious single, both massively catchy and extremely dynamic it makes for a strong point of entry.
I'll bet the heavily instrumental and almost-jammy second half Green will inspire a lot of heated arguments over where this band is headed and whether it'll be any good, but you can lay that bitching to rest for the time being because if there's anyone out there that can make this kind of material more compelling right now, I've yet to hear them. "Green Theme" and "Stretchmarker" are staggeringly beautiful journeys that would render any attempt at words extraneous, leading into introspective anthems "Board Up the House" and "The Line Between" respectively which both fill that role admirably. From there Green does lose a bit of momentum but "Collapse" and "Psalms Alive" with their strains of psychedelia throw a welcome curveball, and the short yet melancholic and powerful "Foolsong" has the best lyrics on the album from a band that doesn't get nearly enough attention for penning some great ones, even outside the admittedly low bar set in metal.
Unlike many other transitional albums from metal bands moving out of their former element, there's nothing that Baroness does on Yellow & Green that sounds tentative or half-assed in any way. It sounds like the music they've always wanted to play, without betraying their previous works in the least. If this is the album that launches them into the realm of household name, it couldn't have been a better one.
Forget Mastodon--these are the Georgians you need to keep tabs on.