It’s been some time now since Buzzov’en and Eyehategod first howled from the South, and since Pepper Keenan started wearing Skynyrd shirts in public. Southern metal has embraced its inner groove and sludge, wearing both proudly in those iconic bands and in the myriad young groups dotting the Southeast. With several well-regarded EPs to their name, Baroness (singer/guitarist John Baizley, guitarist Brian Blickle, bassist Summer Welch and drummer Allen Blickle) generated a whole heap of hype (at least in some circles) when Relapse signed them for their first full-length. So does The Red Album deliver? Well, I recently remarked to a friend, only half-jokingly, that the best Baroness record this year was Kylesa’s wonderful Time Will Fuse Its Worth. While the two Savannah-based bands share a fondness for drop-tuned Southern sludge metal, Baroness have moved consciously in a new (at times several) direction on their debut full-length. They do so with qualified success.
The first few tunes are really promising. “Rays on Pinions” wafts out with the atmospherics of recently crowned “metalgaze” bands like Rosetta and Mouth of the Architect. The tune slams into gear courtesy of guitars that love not only the simultaneous riff/chug, but also long spooling lines that occasionally flash with a bit of Skynyrd swagger. This combo somehow comes across as authentic, and the contrast between the Thin Lizzy twinned lines and yawing sludge (on tunes like “Isak”) is pretty damn fun. And the first third of the album flows really compellingly, as “The Birthing” (with its morphing rhythm and memorable chugging) erupts spontaneously from the brow of the opener. Baizley still barks gruffly, but he’s fallen in love with melodic vocals (in particular a fondness for major thirds).
But by the time you reach the midpoint of the 40-minute album (which ends with an ubiquitous 10-minute silence track before a bonus pops up, a studio goof with some pretty useless slide guitar riffs), the band’s inspirations and aspirations become a bit too obvious. In addition to some Eyehategod sludge and nods to Torche (in both vocals and songcraft), there’s a whole lot of the architectural minimalism of recent Isis (“Cockroach en Fleur” sounds a bit like a boogied-out jam from Panopticon, while “Teeth of a Cogwheel” channels the recent Tool-infected Isis pretty heavily) and some pretty shameless Mastodon love. “O’Appalachia” is more expansive and has some fine moments suggesting a cross between, improbably, Mike Watt’s Contemplating the Engine Room and Mogwai. But the record’s promising start is marred by false steps like “Wanderlust,” a Fahey-esque interlude which – however competently rendered – seems to have no purpose.
In general, the writing and the pacing are leaps and bounds beyond the EPs, and if all their outward leanings towards the epic don’t work, you’ve got to admire their ambition. It’s worth hearing for the first few songs, which are excellent, and hopefully this points the way to a fully-realized vision in the future.