BARONESS: BLUE RECORD (2009)
1) Bullhead's Psalm; 2) The Sweetest Curse; 3) Jake Leg; 4) Steel That Sleeps The Eye; 5) Swollen And Halo; 6) Ogeechee Hymnal; 7) A Horse Called Golgotha; 8) O'er Hell And Hide; 9) War, Wisdom, And Rhyme; 10) Blackpowder Orchard; 11) The Gnashing; 12) Bullhead's Lament.
Alert to lineup change: guitarist Brian Blickle is out, leaving his brother Allen on drums, well, brotherless, and is replaced by Pete Adams. If I am not mistaken, this does result in a slight increase of guitar soloing on the album — so maybe they just wanted to procure the services of a flashier lead player. But it isn't as if the replacement had led to a lot of stylistic change: for the most part, the metal heart of Blue is genetically the same as the one on Red.
On second thought, though, I would probably agree that it is a tad heavier, darker, and tougher than its predecessor — which we'd expect, I guess, considering the transition from a «redder» to a «bluer» hue. I have no idea what the band means by «Bullhead» (a fish? a town? a movie? an undisclosed friend?), but both of the two short, «Bullhead»-inspired bits that open and close the albums are dirge-like — grim minor key wailings that purge the last bits of «math rock» from the band's legacy. And in between are a lot of aggressive, war-like compositions, although, believe it or not, the sound is still ultimately friendly: if it is battle and slaughter that the band is singing about, then it's some sort of ancient epic battle-and-slaughter, carried out with an honorable smile on one's face, with none of that doom-and-gloom, «war-is-evil» bullshit invented by humanists to spoil our old favorite game of head-gathering.
Thus, the album's centerpiece is probably ʽA Horse Called Golgothaʼ, with the band firing away on all cylinders as machine-gun riffage and frenzied soloing (much of which actually resembles a neighing war horse!) assault your ears for five minutes straight. But it is never a vicious assault: guitar tones remain brawny and bulgy, but never evil, and although one would probably expect «a horse called Golgotha» to symbolize something apocalyptic, this particular horse looks like it kills fascists (a dime a dozen), rather than people of good will.
In fact, now that the band has gone even farther retro, abandoning all pretenses to pushing the envelope forward, I know that old sound, echoes of which they consciously or subconsciously reproduce here: the Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy Osbourne records — the same lively, gristling-and-bristling, but never too scary or depressing brand of metal that seeks acceptance from all sorts of music fans, not just the «metalheads». Allegedly, there is nothing here that even begins to approach the catchiness of Ozzy's records — because Baroness are not a «pop» band, after all: they might like that kind of sound, but they certainly wouldn't want you to merrily whistle it out, as it is easy to do with the likes of ʽCrazy Trainʼ. But it's very much that kind of metal, shorn of its Eighties gloss and, perhaps, just a little bit intellectualized.
Other tracks, apart from ʽHorseʼ, that also invoke that analogy, include ʽThe Gnashingʼ (with yet another series of choo-choo train riffs) and ʽJake Legʼ. ʽWar, Wisdom, And Rhymeʼ tries to be more ominous, but mostly through the lyrics — "we are grave, we are graves, we will die" is sung too often for the song to retain a cheerful face, even if Baizley's grizzly-bear vocals still remain the weak point of the band's sound, mainly because the man sounds forever stuck in one mode of expression, regardless of the circumstances. Whether he gets to bash somebody's head in, or whether it is his own head that gets bashed in, you may be sure he will have the exact same howling intonation to inform you of the results in both situations.
All in all, the bad news is that, once again, the collective atmosphere forged by these songs, one after the other, is more interesting than the individual riffs and solos, if you pull them apart and start comparing them to various hard rock classics — try as they might (provided they actually do try, which I am not sure of), Baroness are incapable of drawing an economic, concise, meaningful sonic picture, compensating for this in «sprawl mode». (And I am not even mentioning the occasional non-metal tunes like ʽSteel That Sleeps The Eyeʼ, where the band harmonizes in a «poor man's Crosby, Stills & Nash» fashion — very boring).
The good news is that this «sprawl mode» works, and Blue Record as a whole, with its brawny nature, relative variety, and compositional bravoura, is definitely more than a mere sum of its parts. This is not any sort of great praise — as heard through this reviewer's ears, it signifies the victory of style over substance, and that is always a disappointment in comparison to the opposite. But at least, yep, Baroness have style, and that is already much more than can be said about... oh, well, up to you to complete that sentence, if you are up to it in the first place. So here we go with yet another modest thumbs up, as blue turns out to be the new red and all.
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