The new record from American alternative-metal band Baroness strives to be an epic of sorts, with its sprawling tracklist and adventurous sonic deviations. Despite some frustrations, it largely succeeds. Gold & Grey sees the band play to their strengths whilst simultaneously spreading themselves to deliver key moments that one wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a heavy metal record. Opinions on the music itself may differ, but there’s no doubt that Baroness actively pursued a destination that excels the norm. They go above and beyond general assumptions of metal. Mostly.
The music itself can often be exhilarating. The performances are impeccable, and the band display a phenomenal sense of musicianship. What’s equally important is their understanding of tonal, emotive and sonic contrast. Gold & Grey exhibits tremendous depth in this respect. I just wish the vocal performances grabbed me in the same way as the instrumentation. The chant-like singing can get tiresome fairly quickly, failing to show even remotely the same amount of intensity as the music itself. The pleasant vocal harmonies are the only real saving grace. The fact that there is far more oral expression on quieter tracks, such as “Emmet – Radiating Light”, just shows that it can be done, only adding to the frustration.
The general mixing is another point of contention, and a critical grievance on certain occasions. I appreciate the amalgamation of genres – and I’m always keen on noisy arrangements – but the record targets a specific aesthetic and only sometimes succeeds in its execution. Substandard mixing and monotonous vocals hints at a lack of finesse that restricts Gold & Grey to being a good album rather than a great one. The concept deserves admiration, and the songwriting is satisfying on the whole, but it’s missing the finishing touch. Consequently, this is not exactly the masterpiece that Baroness strived for, though it’s not through a lack of effort. This will still provide a good dose of alternative metal for many listeners.7 10
Favourite tracks // Borderlines
Emmet – Radiating Light
In all manner of respects, this album is dramatic. It’s an hour-long, epic alt-metal experiment, it’s Metacritic’s most well-reviewed album of the year so far, and it’s got album art painted by the vocalist/rhythm guitarist John Baizley with a heartfelt explanation of it to boot. Along with being the end of a supposed six-part anthology that I haven’t otherwise heard, Gold and Grey’s sense of gravitas is intimidating.
The album opens with three excellent hard rock jams, each focused on different things whilst complementing each other well. Over the first few listens they set me in the mood for more of the same, blunting the senses too much to easily appreciate the ever-increasingly complex songwriting that followed. This isn’t helped by Baizley’s choice of vocal styles, which often feel ill-judged. For many of the more driving, straightforward parts of the album, the vocals operate within extremely limited bounds; there’s little to differentiate the ‘aaaaaah’s, ‘oooohs’, ‘errrrrrr’s and so on between a majority of these moments, even between tracks. The vagueness of his delivery is, however, largely abandoned on the more considered and slow-paced tracks. Baizley saves the most interesting vocal dynamics for songs where the rest of the musicianship becomes more intricate, keeping step with the other ascendant displays of skill. The trouble is that this is counterintuitive to the album’s wider cohesiveness because the bangers would often benefit from Baizley’s full range.
Despite constantly wondering ‘what if’, the songs are good enough that this issue doesn’t kill them off. “Seasons” is a perfect example of a song whose vocals are practically inconsequential while the rest of the track is a non-stop, pulsating success. Various instruments cry out for just a touch more weight during plenty of segments but, in its constant balance, the mix highlights the fact these remarkable musicians are all completely in sync. The inventiveness of the instrumentation can be staggering, rescuing tracks from anonymity without ever going so wild as to seem unfit for the bigger picture. Gina Gleason’s guitar solo in “Borderlines” is a particular joy to listen to, and Sebastian Thomson’s drums offer consistent quality and variety across the whole thing. Gold and Grey is both a slew of missed opportunities and hard-fought successes, and it’s frustrating to want to like it more than I do – even though, ultimately, I like it a fair bit.7 10
Favourite tracks // Seasons
Front Toward Enemy
The latest album from Baroness is bold and ambitious. Starting out the gates with strong, surging riffs and vocals that echo out across the top of each track endlessly, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of grand drama.
But it’s the moments that feel slightly further off the beaten track that click with me. “Sevens” is little more than an instrumental interlude as it leads into downtempo “Tourniquet” seamlessly. But it’s a welcome change of pace from the driving churn of the first ten minutes. “Anchor’s Lament” works in a similar way, an interlude at just under two minutes, but it does something that stands out on this tracklist, with its solemn, choral vocal.
Dramatic the vocals might be, but they’re my main sticking point with this album. After a few tracks with the same vocal style, it often turns into a wail, sidelining the powerful instrumentals and negating the dynamism the vocals are clearly intended to deliver. Sparser moments like “I’d Do Anything” make a difference, stripping the instrumental back and allowing for a stronger, vocal focussed track. This is even clearer on “Emmet – Radiating Light”, which takes a pretty different direction to the rest of the album musically while retaining the scale and grandeur the album appears to strive for overall. Vocals are clearer, more purposeful and never come close to the ‘wail’ other tracks have me contend with, and it makes for an easy highlight on the album for me.
Instrumentals often feel like unsung heroes at times on this record. The thick chug on “Broken Halo”, the mood change in “Cold-Blooded Angels” and clean guitar hook on “Tourniquet” are all excellent examples of fantastic instrumentals in the harder tracks. Meanwhile, there’s something of interest in every interlude and curveball track, be it the bleeps and bloops of “Assault on East Falls”, the ominous crackling rumble that punctuates “Blankets of Ash” or the wonky guitar at the forefront of “Crooked Mile”.
My initial reaction to Gold & Grey set a low bar for my expectations. As this is not an area of rock I go to instinctively, a lukewarm review was bound to be on the cards. However, after a week with Baroness’ latest album, I must admit to having my expectations subverted! With a solid core of rock tracks that work despite their vocals, rather than because of them, Gold & Grey just about justifies its length with experimentation that segments this album into a varied collection of enjoyable music which I certainly think I’ll be returning to, at least in part. While I can’t align myself with the fawning reviews, there’s certainly a lot to like.8 10
Favourite tracks // Radiating Light
I’d Do Anything