“I think this new record, is by far, the most extreme thing we’ve ever done. I mean, this is going to be really, really over the top.”
Those are the words of John Dyer Baizley, the fire-breathing vocalist and expert axe-shredder of sludge-rock all-stars Baroness. During their 16-year existence, the Savannah band has righteously earned a reputation as one of the most revered practitioners of heavy metal. So any suggestion that they’re going to pursue “extreme” measures immediately conjures up thoughts of guitars, bass, drums, and vocals all cranked up to outrageous levels. Yet Baroness has earned their considerable plaudits by consistently and earnestly ducking expectations — their next move is rarely the one plotted out by the masses.
After finding widespread success with the release of Yellow & Green, a sprawling two-album masterclass in ambitious, progressive-heavy metal, Baroness followed in 2015 with Purple. (They have a thing for color: Every full-length album is named after one, and Baizley is a prolific visual artist who has designed Art Nouveau album art and T-shirts for numerous other acts.) A relatively restrained 10-song collection that includes two wordless numbers, Purple was produced by David Fridmann, an indie-rock auteur known mostly for spearheading dream-pop albums from The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Not exactly the type of name you’d associate with Kerrang! magazine.
“With every record, we will always figure out some critical element that we can identify with and are aware that we can control — and then we will ignore it,” says Baizley, whose group plays the UC Theatre on Saturday night with one-time local heroes Deafheaven as part of a dream co-headlining tour. “It’s all part of an effort to push our sound forward and to avoid being repetitious.”
In a career full of bold moves, ditching the blueprint of success for Purple could be the bravest decision to date for Baroness. An album full of smoldering pathos — an uncommon virtue in metal circles — Purple fearlessly explored the ramifications of physical, spiritual, and emotional pain, a theme many listeners attributed to a near-fatal van accident that almost derailed the band’s career. (Baizley never confirmed that the album was about that event, although he has credited Metallica’s James Hetfield with helping him recover.)
The songs on the album were intense, but not aggressive, creations that deftly explored moments of frustration and desperation without tipping over to unbridled anger. It was the group’s creative acme, as well. Purple was beloved by critics and ended up unexpectedly nabbing a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance for “Shock Me.”
Baizley — the only remaining founding member of Baroness — has been understandably cagey about the new album. For the past two years, the group has been dutifully writing and recording it, helping to blend in new guitarist Gina Gleason into the creative process. Baizley said it was essential that the band coalesced seamlessly, both onstage and in the studio, before bringing the new songs out to light. Baizley says the group has finished recording and mastering the album, but he is not ready to commit to any release date yet.
However, on March 8, the group issued a 15-second preview from one of the upcoming tracks — and on March 12, they announced that the new album would be titled Gold & Grey (keeping with their chromatic motif). Baizley has yet to announce a release date, though.
“This will sound a little reserved, but I can say the record will come out as soon as it possibly can,” Baizley says. UPDATE, 3/14: Baroness has announced that the album will be released on June 14.)
When speaking of the new record, Baizley continually touches upon the need for the band to explore new boundaries, and as mentioned above, that could mean anything for Baroness. The group’s early work featured plenty of Baizley’s husky growl, technically peerless guitar work, and chugging, beefy rhythm section — elements essential to their metal roots. Those albums can be held in esteem as embodiments of the genre, but by the time they made Yellow & Green, Baroness was eager to truly test their breaking point. That album featured lamenting acoustic bar numbers, ambient soundscapes, and disorienting synth-indebted pieces to complement the usual assortment of breakneck rock songs.
Purple continued that progression, blurring the lines ever more between more accessible classic rock songs, traditional metal sounds, and outré, indie-inflected creations. The newest album might continue in that exploratory vein or mark a return to their thrashier halcyon days. Neither direction would come as a surprise — since surprise is the foundational element of Baroness.
“I’m pretty much scared of everything we do, and when there is a healthy amount of fear, I think that’s usually a signifier that we’re in good shape,” Baizley says. “We have to do the thing that feels right to us, that moves us internally — even if it’s a little frightening.”
That independent streak is what truly sets Baroness apart from their contemporaries (a spirit of unconventionality matched perhaps only by their tourmates, Deafheaven). Metal music is beloved by its devotees, but those followers tend to be dismissive or critical of any efforts that stray from the sounds and structures that define the genre’s foundations. Bands that are exploratory and boundless can be ostracized as apostates. Baroness has never shied away from being different, however.
“We want to play music so bad, and we need to be free to creatively express ourselves, whenever and wherever,” Baizley says. “We don’t tend to concern ourselves with all the rest.”
That philosophy is how you can tout an “extreme” record with no one really knowing what “extreme” could be. Whether the dial is turned all the way up, all the way down, or removed altogether, Baroness will find a new way to deliver its potent message.
Baroness, Saturday, March 16, at UC Theater, 2036 University Ave., Berkeley, $30, theuctheatre.org