Baroness – “Purple” Review

Posted: by Nick

For many fans of elevated sludge metal, Baroness might always play little sibling to acts like Mastodon and Neurosis. That might sound like an insult if it weren’t for this band’s apparent comfort with their position relative to their peers. It’s a useful, and even admirable quality that allows Baroness to retain their identity, rather than lose themselves in a struggle to win broader acclaim. While at a glance Purple may sound like just such a bid, Baroness’ fourth album feels more like a genuine progression from darkness to light.

Fans of the band have waited four years for a follow-up to the lengthy, calmer fare of Yellow & Green. That’s a significant amount of time for a group that seemed to be comfortably settling into their prime, previously releasing full-lengths every two years like clockwork. The delay was in part due to a nearly fatal bus crash that broke bones and nearly broke up the band. Though it may have taken some time for Baroness to heal – both physically and otherwise, with half of the former line-up being replaced since the incident (drums and bass on this album come from Sebastian Thomas and Nick Jost, respectively) – The band is indeed back in fighting form. 

Following such a harrowing and unsure episode in the band’s tenure, it should come as no surprise that Purple has a somewhat lighter heart beating at its core. That is to say this album is more accessible and optimistic, but not without good reason. The attitude that colors this collection is one of thankfulness, seemingly borne out of an awareness that all things can easily slip away. Instead of delving into the inherent darkness of such a notion, Baizley and company seize the opportunity to celebrate the fleeting nature of life. This results in some very positively charged and even life-affirming music.

The opening track “Morning Star” welcomes listeners in a comfortable and familiar way. While there is a lot going on in this song, and it is certainly among the more radio-ready metal tracks the band has put together, it isn’t until the pleasantly haunting synths of “Shock Me” that Baroness stake a new sort of claim. This song is about being woken up, thrown into a new perception by harrowing experience. It is the melodic and thematic thesis of the album, and a critical moment in understanding the record’s purpose and potential power.

Most engaging is the use of psychedelic textures throughout this album. There’s nothing shy about the inclusion of keyboards, and the anthemic, often euphoric climaxes are usually quite effective. Baroness enlisted the help of David Fridmann, whose history working with the Flaming Lips and MGMT brings a rich and somewhat playful atmosphere to the record. 

However, Purple suffers from some strange production and mixing choices. Often the guitars and drums are pushed too far, and grit gives way to clipping. While, for the most part, the pop-inflected melodies feel genuine, they do fall into the predictable at times. Songs like “Try To Disappear” don’t quite accomplish the feat of melding pop and metal effectively, falling victim to compromise that leaves the song in a state of tonal limbo. The large, layered vocal performances keep this album from feeling truly intimate, despite themes that would seem to call for just that. “If I Have To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain)” in particular suffers from this ‘bigness’, and might have been more effective if treated like the softer ballad it actually is. The mixed results make for a somewhat deflated conclusion to the album.

It’s difficult for even the best metal bands to indulge their more catchy and accessible side without losing the spark that made them worthy of fans devotion in the first place. Luckily, Baroness is writing pop-oriented songs that, more often than not, really work. The structures and hooks of these songs, while by the book in many respects, feel genuine and prove that formulas exist for a reason. 

Purple is among Baroness’ most assured and confident work. This is not an album for the stubborn. It is metal for those who would rather not wallow, and heavy music for those who aren’t so attracted by all the doom and gloom. If you are willing to follow Baroness out of the caves and into the warmer, sunnier country where they seem to be building their new home, you may find it very much to your liking.

Score: 7.5/10