From 2002-2004, I played guitar in a three-piece out of Columbus, Ohio. Our band was grounded in punk and alternative rock, but we were disenchanted with the idea of style. As our lyrical content became more complex, we wanted to produce music that matched. Yet, we didn’t want to abandon the emotional content of the music we were so deeply rooted in. We also didn’t want to lose coherence, the way that prog-rock so often does. At the same time other bands we knew were doing similar things—writing longer songs with nontraditional structures, using odd time signatures, incorporating sudden tempo changes, and eschewing major/minor/pentatonic harmonies. For me, every rehearsal was a period of discovery, because nothing was off the table.
To call this album metal is a bit of a stretch. However, I’m glad that it was included on the Rolling Stone’s list, because it is really good. Baroness achieved what I believe we were trying to. ‘The Red Album’ is unmistakably unique, full of surprises, and yet completely coherent. Its hard anymore to write surprising music that also feels familiar. The guitar work of John Dyer Baizley and Brian Bickle is as carefully complementary as any I’ve heard. They do not play standard lead/rhythm (despite what the album credits may say), but rather bounce off of each other, dance around one another, in a constantly shifting interplay of opposition and cooperation. Rarely are guitars heavily distorted, but are clearly down-tuned throughout much of the album. The drums and bass provide a solid backdrop to guitar chaos; both are recorded to accent precision and distinction, and are as much jazz and funk influenced as rock. Vocals are not prominently featured; most songs are primarily instrumental. John Baizley does offer a monochromatic roar from time to time, most often sustaining a note over turbulence underneath. Most importantly ‘The Red Album’ features lots of dynamic variation; the softs are really soft and the louds are really loud, something rarely heard in either metal or punk-rock.
I am hard-put to describe individual songs, because each one includes so many interesting elements; rather than catalog each, I’d advise you to listen to them. I will point out a few highlights. The first track “Rays on Pinion” builds very slowly, starting with some unarticulated chords that swell in and out—one guitar starts arpeggiating and the beat (dope and tribal) doesn’t enter until 1:43. The chords are subverted into something minor and darker (though nearly the same) 3 minutes in. At about 3:50, the vocals enter, and the song takes a turn for the harder and heavier. This patient development is bold choice for the introductory song on the album. The second song “The Birthing” begins much the way that “Rays on Pinion” ends, until taking an abrupt transition to a bass/drum funk groove, only for 10 seconds to dive back into Fugazi style rocking. “Wailing Wintery Wind” features the softest drums perhaps ever recorded…a quick tom-driven cadence under swelling chords with plenty of reverb…building very slowly into a Jon Bonham-esque solo. “Cockroach en Fleur” is an acoustic instrumental, which borrows heavily from the bands Appalachian* roots (there’s another song called “O’Appalachia), with an occasional tritone thrown in for a little darkness. The album ends on another beautiful and simple instrumental called “Grad”.
Notice also the beautiful cover of ‘The Red Album’. Singer/guitarist Baizley does ALL of the covers for this band, as well as for a few other bands.
This album demonstrates a serious commitment to artistry and originality. If I were to ask Baroness what their best album is, my guess is that they would tell me that it is the one they are working on now. After ‘The Red Album’, Baroness has made four other studio albums. I listened to these albums (less intensively), and each represents an evolution of the coherent musical concept introduced on ‘The Red Album’. Listen to Baroness. That is all.
*They operate out of Savannah, GA, but the original lineup met in Lexington, VA.