Wednesday, September 22, 2010

BARONESS: Blue Record

Baroness - Blue Record
The latest release from Baroness is an album that walks a lot of tightropes. It’s accessible, but it doesn’t pander. The guitar motifs are majestic and baroque, but not corny. It’s not innovative, but it isn’t clichéd, either.

Baroness integrates distinctly un-metal genres like Southern rock (“The Gnashing”) and ambient music (“Ogeechee Hymnal”) but not in the form of pastiche. Everything here suits a distinct atmosphere without obvious “atmospheric” tricks and sound-effects. That good old-fashioned Heavy Metal Malevolence is around, but this isn’t the Clive Barker Halloween party usually associated with the genre. It’s distinctly American, even Southern. The band strums an acoustic guitar and sings in somber harmony during the ballad “Steel that Sleeps the Eye” and the build that leads it into its sister song “Swollen and Halo” is pure Ennio Morricone, squinting and fingering its pistol in that Civil War cemetery.

At a few points, Baroness blur the line between melodic singing and guttural growls. Switching between the two is a standard tool of the metal trade, (think of it as the distortion pedal for singers, with only an “on” and an “off” position) and it would be nice to see more vocalists make use of shades in between, but it doesn’t work here. Growls and screams are atonal, but melodic singing has to be in tune, particularly in a genre where precision is required to prevent the music from melting into cacophonous mush. Some of the half-melodic screams here are basically just bum notes.

That caveat aside, this is a great record. The second track (preceded only by the chiming bookend “Bullhead’s Psalm”) is called “The Sweetest Curse” and it’s everything Baroness does well. Pete Adams and John Dyer Baizley intertwine their vocals and synch up harmonized guitar melodies as they gallop to some kind of rescue. It sounds heroic, but not in a dragon-slaying way. Add that to the list of tightropes.

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