The best–known practitioners of sludge are not renowned for their sophistication – names like Eyehategod, Weedeater and Crowbar suggest as much. Not to dispute the intelligence of any of these bands, Dixie Dave et al just deliver their smarts in different ways. Finesse, however, plays a huge part in Baroness’ 2007 Red Album, an album that, when described, typically tends to be reduced to the single term sludge metal. Whilst exuding a like–minded swagger similar to Black Tusk, Rwake or Corrosion of Conformity, or indeed the aforementioned Eyehategod or Weedeater, what makes Red Album a classic album and a revelatory listen are the elements of country, jazz and space that Baroness thread through the eleven tracks.
Guitarists John Dyer Baizley and Brian Blickle have a way of weaving their lines over the the tight–but–loose feel of bassist Summer Welch and drummer Allen Blickle, with many a riff or lick blossoming in an unexpected direction (‘The Birthing’), replete with jazzy sidesteps, before delivering a heavy payoff. The mastery with which these elements are mixed, such as the palm–muted wah in the intro of ‘Isak’, the chicken pickin’ in ‘Cockroach En Fleur’, or the volume swells that bookmark the album, bring a real sense of accomplishment to the album. Through dint of sheer creativity, not to mention execution, this is prog metal.
Where Red Album does bear a hallmark of sludge is in the way the pace pushes and pulls, with drummer Blickle the driving force in ‘Wailing Wintry Wind’ and laying down a particularly righteous groove on ‘Teeth of a Cogwheel’. Still, given the atypical song structures, and breezier, more jazz–influenced songs like ‘Aleph’, a more accurate description for this album would be post–metal. These songs feel like an exploration of a soundscape pocketed with mountains, rivers and swamps (yes, Baroness are from the Deep South). The lyrics refer to this too in broad swathes: ‘milk the keel through tidal slough at dawn/on and on’ (‘Wanderlust’) and ‘stand in valleys/this is where the rivers coursed my veins (‘O’Appalachia’). Even with the guitars in drop A# tuning, the placement of lighter moments has the effect of rejecting that other sludge trope – a sense of suffocation. In fact, sometimes, it sounds positively happy. Indeed, complete with a trumpet solo, closing track ‘Grad’ is simply euphoric.
As their recently released fifth album Gold and Grey shows, Baroness have very much transformed from the band that created Red Album. On the latter, they display a like–minded approach to Kylesa or Leviathan–era Mastodon, whilst avoiding interchangeability. For the balance it displays, Red Album remains their finest moment.
Words: Gregory Brooks