Since their formation in 2003, Baroness has gone through a significant amount of change. Not only has founding guitarist/vocalist John Baizley had quite a few bandmates depart and new ones join, but the group’s music has transformed from its heavier sludge roots into a combination of progressive rock, heavy metal, and everything in between. Albums like 2015’s Purple went for slightly more straightforward pop hooks while 2019’s Gold & Grey explored a wider range of styles and padded the album length out significantly. The one constant along the way has been Baizley’s striking cover art for each album, and with this year’s STONE the band lineup is also the same for two albums in a row which isn’t something Baroness has had for some time. It’s a more restrained effort than its predecessor when it comes to length but feels like a sonic exploration of the band’s past while also pushing into exciting new territory.
For other bands, by the time they’re on their sixth album their songwriting might have fallen into some patterns with some different flourishes and fans have a good idea of what to expect. For Baroness, while there have been some commonalities between releases, each one feels fundamentally different. STONE feels like a rekindling of some of the heavier moments from the band’s earlier days while further exploring the rock side of recent albums. Opener “Embers” doesn’t launch right into the heavier, burlier riffing, instead opting for a breezy and inviting acoustic track that gives off more of an Americana vibe. But once “Last Word” starts that lumbering tonality comes roaring in and you get Baroness’ familiar sludge meets hard rock vibe. Songs like this offer up some of the heaviest riffing the group has offered in some time, but even when this is the case they branch out into diverse territory. “Last Word” for example sprawls outwards towards softer textures that have a warmer, prog rock feel to them before letting a more classic rock ‘n roll solo take over. “Beneath the Rose” starts off a suite of songs that concludes with the “The Dirge”, and here is where Baroness’ experimental side begins to shine. This track moves from sludge into traditional heavy metal, with some folk and Americana flourishes layered over top, but as it flows into “Choir” the sound changes into a more free-flowing psychedelic rock approach that reminds me of Hawkwind. Despite the approachable album length of forty-six minutes, there’s a lot happening throughout and the moves from heavy to soft aren’t always predictable. Admittedly some of the experimentation makes STONE a bit less immediate than past Baroness albums, and while there were some riffs that instantly hooked me it took around three times through to fully click. But there’s just so much here to discover, whether it’s that wall of distortion and weightier tonality that thumps you right in the chest or the Americana flourishes of the opening and closing tracks, and once things started to sink in I haven’t wanted to listen to much else.
2019’s Gold & Grey was the first recording to have Gina Gleason on guitar and vocals alongside John Baizley, and on STONE her singing is even more prominent. This is a great move for Baroness as her voice perfectly complements Baizley’s and the way that the two soar over the recording makes for some stunning moments. Baizley still has that gruffer tone but is able to lighten up as the instrumentation follows suit, and there are a number of harmonized lines that will surely be stuck in your head for quite some time. Tracks like “Shine” have just as much depth to the vocal arrangements as the instrumentation, and this continues to give Baroness some key differences from their peers. But the biggest differences on the vocal front come on “Beneath the Rose” and “Choir”, where Baizley moves from grittier rock ‘n roll singing to spoken word. “Choir” has a more of a spaghetti western vibe to it, and it gives off a sound unlike anything the group has offered to date. It’s a bit weird at points and not everyone may gel with this approach, but I found it made this suite a highlight of an already strong album.
Baroness is one of those bands that doesn’t have a bad album, though some have slightly stronger moments than others. STONE feels like it has the staying power to be in that upper echelon as time passes, offering some of the heavier sludge of their early days while leaning into the experimental and progressive side. I was expecting to like STONE going in, but after some in-depth time with it I’m really blown away by how far the band has branched out and how naturally they continue to weave everything together. STONE is available from the band’s own label Abraxan Hymns.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg