Baroness: Out of the Blue

For Baroness, it's all about evolution. But will the fans follow the band out of their own brand of primordial, sludgy ooze?

Sometimes a certain scene seems to blow up thanks in part to the meteoric success of a few bands that come to define a particular region’s trademark sound or, once in a great while, transcend that sound with enough of their own idiosyncratic nuances to create a movement and devotion all their own. Such is the case with Savannah, Georgia by way of Lexington, Virginia metal, punk, and sludge merchants Baroness.

Formed in 2003 by former members of punk band Johnny Welfare and the Paychecks, Baroness has, over the past seven years, elevated itself to enviable heights with the releases of its universally heralded Red Album and the Blue Record, released in 2007 and 2009 respectively. The latter garnered a perfect score in the highly respected review section of Decibel magazine and prompted the noted sarcasm slingers over at Metal Sucks to profess that, in a perfect world, the album would make Baroness one of the biggest bands in the world. The Red Album also took home Revolver’s album of the year honours in 2007. Baroness has achieved such lofty praise with its progressive mindset that somehow manages to take the band just far enough afield to be noted as one of the modern era’s great musical innovators, but not so far as to confuse or alienate the bulk of critics and fans. Not that embarking on this ambitious yet artistically prudent path was intentional, according to the band’s well spoken and artistically gifted vocalist, guitarist, and cover artist John Baizley.

“Honestly, we don’t even think about it,” he writes via email. “We started this band in order to offer ourselves an artistic challenge. The idea of there being an endpoint to what we create is moot. Long before we reach any goal we’ve set for ourselves, we have already advanced past that towards something equally difficult. There are no musical prodigies within our ranks. Baroness has always been the result of the struggle to create something engaging, and then to perform it.”

A lot of bands fall off the mountain when trying to push their sound when they try to pursue technicality, obtuseness, or even outright inaccessibility merely for their own sake, confusing that with being progressive or ahead of one’s time. But for Baroness, embarking on such fool’s errands is as remote as a mild Georgia summer. They want a challenge, but that has nothing to do with writing challenging music, Baizley explains.

“We’ll always make sure we feel challenged. That doesn’t mean anything specific to our sound, it merely speaks to the fact that boredom and/or repetition could be the death of this band. If we are writing personal music, then we are forced to ask ourselves at every turn of the road, ‘Is this the best music we are capable of?’ Progression doesn’t necessarily mean higher technicality or a more pop-oriented direction. For us, progression means writing better music.”

And speaking of better music, a lot of the most critically acclaimed releases in the world of heavy music in the past couple of years seem to be coming from one of its previously unheeded corners, Baroness’s adopted hometown of Savannah. The southern American city with a metro area population of under 350,000 has given rise to fellow sludge and stoner causes célèbres such as Black Tusk and Kylesa, as well as many other up and coming acts. Baizley delves into why Baroness’s scene seems on the verge of exploding.

“We are isolated geographically from most of the greater music scene at large. We have had to create something from nothing, all of us, and we have all been each other’s critics and teachers. I believe we have all been spit out the other side of our teeth-cutting as very uniquely individual bands, but I won’t deny that a common thread exists amongst us. We came up the same way, booking our own tours, printing our own merch, and playing wherever and whenever possible.”

So far, the increasing prevalence of weird-bearded stoner and sludge bands seems to be happening fairly organically across the board. But you can almost sense the rising urgency with which North American labels are rushing out to sign any band with a decent crop of facial fur, a fuzzed out guitar tone, and southern drawled shouts for vocals. Is the stoner, doom, sludge, prog sound in danger of becoming the new re-thrash? Even if it is to be, Baizley and company aren’t worried in the slightest.

 “Trends all burn brightly for a short period and then die. The key is to make an honest attempt to transcend the fad by ignoring its perceived rules and strictures. No one should ever play this music because it’s trendy. We started off playing like this as a response to the homogeneity and sterility of the music around us. When what we do becomes faddish, we must move forward, lest we become caricatures of ourselves.”

As with any band that constantly has its eye set steadfast on moving forward, Baroness risks putting much on the proverbial table that it might not get back. Metal fans and music fans in general can at times be unfathomably fickle and unfailingly loyal at others. The reasons why they will crucify one band for leaving the past to the pages of history and stick by another is anyone’s guess. Baizley, ever conscious of the fact that Baroness has challenged its fans to evolve right alongside the band, is grateful that so many of their fans have decided to be a part of the band’s journey rather than to part ways.

“Many of our fans seem to have come along with us for the ride. However, we ask a hefty fee from our audience at times, and I’ll never begrudge anyone for whom our progress is distasteful. I am really the worst person to ask this question to, because I don’t pay too much attention, or give much credence to public opinion. We have written this music for ourselves as much as anyone else. We are eternally grateful for anyone who gives our band support of any kind. Things seem to be working really well for us right now, and we get to share the stage with some amazing and incredible bands.”

In metal circles, amazing and incredible bands don’t get much bigger than the mighty Metallica, and Baroness was handpicked by the Four Horsemen themselves to open for the storied thrashers for their Australian dates in October and November of this year. Thus, November marks the second time in as many months that Baroness has graced Australia’s shores, a rare experience considering many bands go years between Aussie jaunts that the humble Baizley describes as an honour, and an amazing opportunity. This time around, Baroness will also headline a pair of shows in Sydney and Melbourne. And with 2010 quickly drawing to a close, all questions shift toward what we will see from Baizley and the boys in 2011.

“We are going to start writing it in 2011,” Baizley confirms to conclude the interview. “Ask me the same question in six months. I’ll have a much better answer.”