In times like these, I always turn to music. I am incredibly lucky that my favourite band, Baroness, released an album so exquisite, so meaningful – that I am able to use it to guide me through these months following the death of my father. There will obviously be triggering passages in this blog post so I won’t hold it against you if you don’t want to read it. There will also be lots of nerd-ing out about Baroness in a way that only a fan can do, so if you aren’t familiar with their music a lot of this might go over your head (I do recommend listening to them though, even if metal isn’t your thing). Quotes and facts are taken from Kerrang!’s track-by-track guide to the album, which featured lead singer John Dyer Baizley talking us through the album. I’m not going to apologise for being a massive music nerd, but I will warn you that it’s coming.
The album I am talking about is Gold & Grey, the last in Baroness’ line of colour-wheel-themed albums. These colours immediately to me seem to conjure up the season of Autumn and the changing of leaves, misty mornings and cups of coffee. I put on this album, beginning to end, one morning when I was set on some productive self-care. I had just changed my bedsheets, was wearing a cosy jumper and drinking coffee. I also had new pants on, which isn’t essential but damn does it feel good.
These are some of the musings I had whilst listening to this album. At the time of writing, I’m not one hundred percent sure I even want to publish this, but if I’m going to write about my dad dying, then using music as a way to break down conscious barriers and inspire creativity seems like a good way to go about it. So here follows a track-by-track breakdown of my favourite Baroness album, mixed in with some thoughts about grief, and how this album helped me to make sense of (at least some of) it.
It’s a cosy album, as far as sludge metal can be described as “cosy”. It is, I would argue very strongly, the best Baroness album to date. I felt slightly underwhelmed on the first listen, but honestly, with Baroness, you always have to give each record at least three listens to even begin to unpack everything. I think the proper turning point was when I put it on whilst going on a run, and ended up listening to ‘I’d Do Anything’ at the top of the hill outside Alexandra Palace, having just run 10k, sobbing my eyes out as I looked over London. I would also definitely recommend listening to this album whilst running, or maybe meditating.
The album opens with ‘Front Towards Enemy’, which I actually think is probably the weakest song on the album (that being said, it’s still pretty great). It’s classic sludgy Baroness, with tuned down guitar strings “as low as it would go” but also contains notes of r ‘n’ b, soul and has quite a pop-y chorus. It signalled to me that this album was going to be the start of a very different sound for Baroness, and bring in lots of different elements. Which the rest of the album definitely did. What I have noticed on subsequent listens is that the harmonies of the ‘Anchor’ duo – ‘Anchor’s Lament’ and ‘Throw me an Anchor’ – are repeated and reflected all over the album, and do a really good job of knitting the album together in a way I don’t think Purple ever properly achieved, or at least not to the extent I would expect from a band such as Baroness. It’s these harmonies which first begin the record, and they are beautiful.
‘I’m Already Gone’ is a more simplified song, but still so beautiful. There was a lot of improvisation done on this album. So much so that Baizley has said he’s not sure if he will ever be able to fully recreate the guitar part properly. There are so many colours mentioned in this album; this song makes use of black and green as well as “golden at the seams”. I’m not going to try to understand what John actually meant but for me it kind of sounds like inevitability. It’s a very dark song lyrically, so I don’t feel like I’m stretching by projecting my own experiences of looking death in the fucking face over the last four years of my dad’s illness onto this track.
When ‘Seasons’ was released as the second single, prior to the album, but after ‘Borderlines’, I did a double-take looking at my speaker. I literally stopped whatever it was I was doing just to stare, open-mouthed at the noise coming from the video I had just put on to play. I was so confused. Baroness are doing blast beats now? And is that…? I mean, that drum groove sounds an awful lot like drum ‘n’ bass to me. I mean, I loved it straight away but it was so different. This is the track which made me so damn excited for this album to come out. Also, “we bend, we break / we burn, but we survive” is but one lyric in a song all about seasons coming and going, and the constant flow of emotions and states of being. This too shall pass.
The first of the instrumental/interlude tracks on the album, ‘Sevens’ is an ethereal melding of different piano parts written and performed by bassist Nick Jost. It’s a perfect moment of calm in an album of chaos and it sounds to me like an understanding, a recognition of pain and a comforting answer to it. It also sounds like Steve Reich.
‘Tourniquet’ is such a stand out track. The bassline is the sweetest thing I’ve heard in a long time and I think Nick Jost did such a great job on this album as a whole, but this song is fully his. The end of the song reflects ‘Assault on East Falls’ as well – like these themes were all established in our collective subconscious in the first half of the album before being fully expanded on in the second half. It’s an album of chaos which is straightened out more and more on subsequent listens, if you only have the patience and concentration to allow the band to take you on this journey with them. Anyway, this song was such a solid choice for a single. It’s the epitome of the “cosy metal” I was talking about earlier. In the interviews with the band for their YouTube channel, Jost is sitting on a rocking chair on his porch, all bundled up in jumpers and drinking a cup of coffee, which is how this song should be listened to, in my opinion. Fun fact; to create the final chord of the song, Baizley set up a circle of amplifiers, the band stood in the middle wearing different animal masks and then played the chord for about ten minutes. They used some of it on the record, overlaid with the minimal effects found later on ‘Assault on East Falls’.
The Anchor… duo? Suite? I don’t know what to call it but there are two songs that go together next – ‘Anchor’s Lament’ and ‘Throw me an Anchor’. These are two songs I get completely lost in when I listen to them. I feel like the screams of ‘Throw me an Anchor’ are expelling my own rage and confusion, and it’s a perfect example of a time that I feel like the songs on this record are there to catch me. ‘Throw me an Anchor’ was another moment that I did a double-take (but like… with my ears?) when I first heard it. The intro is just so heavy. It’s the start of Side B. The chorus is pretty anthemic, but towards the end of the song, it just descends into this really primal screaming, which is something I really appreciate.
I find ‘I’d Do Anything’ quite a difficult song to listen to, since it’s just so vulnerable and heartfelt. The vocals are very exposed with just an echoey piano bassline and some strings to accompany them. It’s the first time we can properly hear John and newcomer Gina singing together in such an intimate way. I can’t get over how perfect this pairing is. They play guitar together as if they’ve spent a whole lifetime dueting. In one interview, they spoke about playing their parts simultaneously and recording live, so that if one of them messed up they’d have to start again. They also recorded whilst standing back to back, meaning that they had to put the maximum amount of trust in the other person in order to play the song. ‘I’d Do Anything’ has more dark lyrics and it’s a good one to put on if you fancy a bit of a cry.
‘Blankets of Ash’ is just a weird soundscape really. It’s a guitar part, a spoken word passage mixed so it’s completely incoherent, the noise of a thunderstorm and a massive bass drop with some haunting wordless vocals over the top. It’s bizarre and experimental and it totally works and I love it.
This next song is an understated favourite. ‘Emmett – Radiating Light’ is just so gorgeously weird. Recorded in part in a cabin in the middle of the woods with crickets chirping in the early hours of the morning, Baizley has said that this is one of a number of songs on the record that he can’t actually play the guitar part for. This is a song which speaks to me as it discusses feeling displaced. “Where I’m supposed to be / Is no longer the place for me,” is a good lyric, but it’s the truly nihilistic “This blood upon my hands / Bruises on my knees / Don’t belong to me” which really resonates with me. A lot of the time right now, things don’t feel real. I have been on and off of autopilot for weeks. It’s really weird. But the song does offer some hope, as the narrator is still “… in a shower / Of radiating light / But not where I belong.” To me, it kind of sounds like there is beauty to be found in this sense of displacement, in this bizarre in-between state. And that I can let my emotions wash over me, because I am held by their beauty. It’s a really great song.
‘Cold-Blooded Angels’ is arguably the best song on the album. It travels through so many different emotions on its way to a classic Baroness trope of totally upturning all expectations of where the song was going and changing completely for the last minute or so (see also: ‘Chlorine and Wine’, ‘Psalms Alive’, etc.) It marks the end of Side B and really sees it off in style. I think about death a lot these days, and it terrifies me. Not the fact that I could die, but that, a few weeks ago, my dad just… stopped Being. I think it’s a pretty normal thing to fixate on, given the circumstances. This song also kind of puts that into words for me – the fact that I have been so scared of so many things in my life (growing up with crippling anxiety/depression/dodgy health from a very young age) and just wasted so much time being wary of everything when what is really scary is right here and now, just around the corner.
‘Crooked Mile’ and ‘Broken Halo’ also kind of go together. The first song bleeds into the next with this weird, jazzy and somewhat atonal mood. ‘Broken Halo’ introduces lyrics and is the most obvious mention of the album’s name, with Baizley bellowing “GOLD AND GREY”. It’s quite a straightforward song compared to most of the other ones on the album. With “I would do anything to feel like I’m on fire again,” it also mirrors a lot of the other lyrical content of the album. It also says “I will hold your broken halo” which to me just sounds really reassuring. I think Gina’s harmonies are also really great on this track.
The chaotic acid freak out of ‘Can Oscura’ is a good way of describing how I feel in the middle of this mess – like someone has pulled several carpets out from under my feet. I feel very small and lost in the middle of this massive event, and confused.
‘Borderlines’ is the song that won me back over after the disappointment of Purple. Not that Purple was bad at all – it gave us ‘Chlorine and Wine’, one of Baroness’ best songs to date. It just felt like it was more a collection of tracks than a coherent album to me. I guess that makes sense for their first album following the devastating bus crash; that it would be the auditory version of an open wound, but as soon as I heard ‘Borderlines’ I was immediately much more on board. This is the first time we hear Gina feature on a Baroness record as well, and I was so excited to hear her additions to this song. It signalled the beginning of a new chapter, a more cohesive album than Purple, and one which sounds to me like beginning to heal.
The minimalist ‘Assault on East Falls’ is a piece which has been hinted at throughout the album. Here, we get the whole piece in all its glory. It’s an interesting place to put the final interlude song but it’s a really nice set up for the final song, which is another of my album favourites.
‘Pale Sun’ is the last song on the album. It might also be my favourite. It’s bizarre and ghostly and mixes up rhythms in a really unsettling way. Gina comes into her own here too, with ethereal vocals as well as her usual outstanding guitar playing. I’m so glad she’s in this band. It’s an interesting choice to end the album on, but to me it sounds defiant above all else – yes there is darkness and yes it is close and terrifying and everywhere but I will continue on, despite it all, damn it. Even when the sun sinks.