I love artists who have a solid through-line in their work, but each record not only sounds distinct but feels different and the listening experience is unique. Philadelphia-based heavy rock legends Baroness are no strangers to innovation. Emerging from the Southern swampy sludge scene, blossoming into a dark prog behemoth, and now luxuriating in a technicolor sound that is easy to pick up but difficult to describe.
Their latest effort, Stone, out now via Abraxan Hymns, despite being their first non-color-related record, feels the most innately vibrant. It’s a record is about those twists, those moments of surprise that feel both spontaneous and almost eerily intentional. Hooks are better; the guitar work is naturally impeccable, and the sense of foreboding permeates. It’s a bright record about dark things.
So shed of the color scheme, of label execs breathing down their neck (they own Abraxan Hymns), and with the same members in consecutive records for the first time ever, Stone feels like a glorious reset, and the band’s best effort yet. It’s sure to be in the AOTY discussion, but how did we get here? Vocalist/guitarist John Baizley shares some of the sausage making and goals:
“When you’re talking about making a record, a big project type of record, I think it can be problematic, restrictive, confining, to put too sharp a point on it, before you’ve done anything. For us, the recording is as much about the songs we’ve written as it is about the process to turn them into studio recordings. So it’s like we tend to set out, with each record, with a very specific but broad goal. We will come up with a simple idea for the concept of the record, something that’s not going to prevent us from doing whatever the fuck we want, but just gives us a little a bit of direction, a little bit of a springboard.
Every record we do release, it’s about the time in which we wrote it. It’s about the time between the last record and the one we’re working on. So conceptually and lyrically it not about anything further back in time than Gold & Grey.”
“And that’s not to say that doesn’t take into account the whole experience of our lives or anything like that,” he adds, “it’s just that I try to write from a very genuine place. And the only way that I’m actually capable of doing it is by dealing with personal experiences, dealing with moods, feelings, inspirations, things that I come into contact with, and the impact that they have on me in one way or another. But further to that, the only musical direction that we ever apply to a record when we’re making it is that we look at the former record, and we try to identify the thing that worked the best with it, or some characteristics of the record that is just fundamental for the last record.
“Gold & Gray was really about this density of everything. The density of harmony, the density of melody, density of layers, embellishments, just like a crowding of ideas all on top of one another, just like an absolute blitzkrieg. So when we started Stone, the only concept that we wanted to adhere to was that we didn’t need to approach that type of psychosis with this record. We will always find some new psycho thing to move towards (laughs), but it just has to be a little bit different than the last record. As long as the end result sounds like us, we’re pretty happy with it.”
Interestingly, the need for isolation and the ability to take time away not only did wonders for Baroness but was essential to the (inorganic) secret sauce in Stone. The band took time away, building a studio in an Upstate NY Airbnb. As Baizley reflects, this is not a pandemic record, but it felt like more than that for the band:
“Obviously with this record, the time period in interim between Gold & Grey and Stone, there were some fairly significant life/world events that had happened. So there was a lot of stuff to draw on. But I think for us, the main thing that added to this very inspired feeling that we had while we’re making it, was that we finally had gotten to the point where we had the means, the wherewithal, and the situation whereby we could just make it ourselves without any help. No fifth person in the room ever, just four people who built a studio in an Airbnb. We didn’t have any of the songs worked out by day one in the studio.”
“We used the studio as a place to rehearse 12 hours-a-day,” he says, “and we left ourselves open to try to capture those moments when we hadn’t quite finished writing the song, but had the entire structure and arrangement intact. But nobody knew the details they were going to do yet; nobody knew what everybody else was doing. So it was really like we were just cooperating, trusting one another, improvising, being spontaneous. And right at that point where any further rehearsing, or any further refinements, are going to be only in the name of precision, or locking in a drum fill or really nailing the guitar solo, we just said, ‘No, no, fuck it. We don’t need to go that far because what we want to capture is some of that genuine stage energy.’”
That spontaneity is key to what makes a live show feel, well, alive, and it’s why Stone genuinely feels both intimate and massive, the kind of record that offers surprise after surprise, driven by feeling and emotion as much as musical ability. Baizley concurs:
“It’s better when it feels like everything’s about to fall apart or run off the rails, and it’s something that musicians talk with producers and engineers in studio situations about a lot. You can record something so many times that you absolutely drain the life out of it. So, our whole goal with this record was to create a situation where our independence as the producers and engineers, as the songwriters, as the arrangers, as the lyricists, as the cover artists, the designers, and as the record label, where we could put into effect a lot of these concepts. Occasionally you fall in love with the idea of a loose, energized recording, but in reality, when you get in the studio and you hear that looseness, it sounds like floppiness sometimes to some people. So for us, it was about finding that key moment where the only thing we had locked in was the energy of the song, and then we record it and just let whatever happens, happen from there on out.”
Time away with friends—Baizley’s words, not mine—and coming out of their little house on the prairie with something special revitalized the quartet. There’s a reason for the closeness and connectivity for Baroness.
“(The record) was a fun thing to do, and I do think that not only does it sound reinvigorated, but it needed to be reinvigorated. In a sense, every record needs to have some aspect of that, but with this record, we felt like it’s time to really sink our teeth in. It’s the first record we’ve ever done with a repeated lineup. It’s just never happened before. That was a really important thing for me because I’ve spent so many records at this point, working with at least one musician who’s new to the band, and who’s trying to find themselves within the context of our music, or who’s just got enough nervousness about being 100% themselves that it stops us from being as creatively open and free as we were with stuff. So it feels really nice. It feels like a really great place to start building again.”
Baroness truly have become possessed and obsessed with the art of creation. But like any sausage, it’s been to enjoy it afterward than stare while it’s being made. Baizley truly feels comfortable in that discomfort with the group of artists together.
“I’m actually the last person to know whether or not any of these songs were good ideas or bad ideas,” he shares. “My instincts are all I have to go on, and I think instinctively, it felt very fertile to be in a musical and creative position where we were still making bold discoveries throughout every song’s journey. Just coming up with weird ideas and seeing if we could make them musical. Because at the end of the day, really the only thing is our songs need to have something that is characteristically us. And I think that’s in enthusiasm, passion, meaning, the seriousness with which we take it.
“Style doesn’t matter at that point, but we have to really hold ourselves to a high standard. For us it just, does it feel like we’re inventing, does it feel like we’re discovering, are we excited? Am I excited to hear what my bandmates are playing? And when the session’s done, when we listen back to the songs that we’re writing, do they feel original? Do they feel genuine? Do they feel like a repeat offense? If they do, nine times out of 10, we’ll change something, because unlike certain types of music that benefit from refinement, I don’t think for us to refine our sound is a very exciting prospect. I think it’s more to expand our sound. It’s more to keep our hearts and our heads and our minds open to absorb new inspirations, and then to use those as the tools by which we create better music.”
“As a band who likes to push outwards and push forwards,” he continues, “when we have this perfect blend of excitement and unfamiliarity with what we’re doing, and when there is that runaway train feeling in the compositions, matched with big moments, and matched with a great melody and a great harmony, and a good flow and the story’s there, and you get a feeling the song makes you feel something, then I think that’s what good shape is for us. And that process isn’t easy. That’s the tricky thing is, it’s great when everything works out well in an immediate sense. In fact, that’s the gold standard, when you’re operating out of pure creativity, things come out easily. But it’s not always the case. So sometimes you have to analyze, sometimes you have to be critical, sometimes you have to sit and think about things. We just have gotten to a point in our career where we’re not thinking about whether or not it was clean enough, or slick enough, or played well enough, it’s about, does this music still make emotions happen? Does it still tap into something primal?”
Photo courtesy of Kyle Bergfors