There are a wide variety of bands who have undergone massive changes in musical style over their career arcs. Opeth and Anathema among many others come to mind. Add Baroness into that mix. The group began life as a straightforward sludge act, but over the years have moved across the spectrum to touch on art-rock, prog, and more. Gold & Grey is the band’s fifth full-length album, and sees them pushing their limits and ideas even further afield.
“Front Toward Enemy” kicks the album off with a frenetic pace, dirty bass, and effect-laden guitars. It’s the hardest-rocking song on the record – probably the closest they get to metal here – and flies by, right into one of the bands’ cooler tunes, “I’m Already Gone,” with a hypnotic bass line that pulls us along through four spellbinding minutes. In fact, Nick Jost shines throughout the album, with some of the most superb bass playing I’ve heard in ages.
Elsewhere, the pensive, swirling, keyboard-laden “I’d Do Anything” has a wonderful arrangement, building continuously from start to finish. And the album’s best song comes at the end: “Pale Sun” is an ethereal denouement, led by yet another stunning bass melody and new guitarist Gina Gleason’s wonderful backing vocals – another highlight of the album, and something I wanted to hear more of. Those four songs are on par with much of Baroness’s recent output.
But after seven painstakingly focused listens, that’s as far as the praise goes. “Throw Me an Anchor” is similar to “Front Toward Enemy” in that it’s a heavier number, but it’s virtually unlistenable – essentially four minutes of thinking the speakers are blown. And, much like Purple, that’s where one of the album’s major flaws lies.
Overproduced and saturated with effects, then mastered and brickwalled to within an inch of its life, Gold & Grey is similar to Purple in that it sounds horrible. And at seventeen tracks and about an hour, it makes for a very painful listen, and one that is not sustainable at high volume. It’s almost unfathomable that a band would foist the same aural travesty on its audience after Purple’s backlash, but Baroness have doubled down here.
Sticking with producer Dave Fridmann does not reap rewards. Here Fridmann leads Baroness even further down the Flaming Lips highway of oversaturated drums, massive effect chains, and oddball interludes and segues (a whopping six tracks here are simply bits and pieces of unrealized musical morsels, none of which add to the flow of the album). It adds up to a bloated, noisy album that makes even the best songs a chore to listen to.
Maybe a bigger issue than the production is the mastering. For those of you with an analytical mind, Baroness’s earlier albums (Red, Blue, Yellow & Green) had “dynamic range” measurements in the 7-11 range. Purple had its DR crushed down to a miserable 4, and, although we were only given a stream for this review, Gold & Grey sounds even worse. When you are aiming for a broad, expansive art-rock album, dynamics would be a boon.
“I wanted to create something that was more kaleidoscopic than our other records,” sole remaining founding member John Baizley says, and despite my misgivings above Baroness have definitely accomplished that. However, he goes on to say “we’d listen to playback and there was a general sense of confusion.” I couldn’t agree more.
(released June 14, 2019 on Abraxan Hymns)
Heavy Music Headquarters Rating:
Watch Baroness – “Borderlines” Video