Every music genre has its gatekeepers. These are the devotees who take it upon themselves to determine the boundaries and definitions of their beloved music, as well as who is entitled enough to join their exclusive flock.
While each of these tribes can be impenetrable in their own particular way, metalheads tend to be the most possessive about their product. By its nature, metal and hardcore rock is inaccessible and jarring — it’s not for everyone, and that’s just how many people like it.
[jump] John Dyer Baizley, lead singer and guitarist for psych-metal rockers Baroness, understands and respects the disciplines of his chosen genre, but he doesn’t think his band needs to play within those confines forever. His band’s latest release, 2015’s Purple, is a haunting, scary, and aggressive album, but it’s also triumphant, hopeful and sonically-approachable in a way that few metal records have ever been.
“I have nothing but love and respect for the hardcore and metal community,” said Baizley, whose band will play at the Regency Ballroom on June 2. “That’s who we came up with, and that’s a huge part of my listening diet, but I don’t think that’s all there is. It was very fun to play music that spoke only to that community, but after a while, you’re preaching to the choir and you’re delivering a message that people already know. You’re essentially playing for your friends, and that’s not challenging or exciting.”
While Baroness has made a shift to expand its audience, it’s not like the Savannah, Ga.-based group is now penning pop tunes in the hopes of landing on FM radio. Baizley concedes that they’re still four dudes who yell a lot and employ really loud guitars.
But Purple is just as indebted to classic rock concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon as it is to sludge-rocking groups like Mastodon or Kylesa. Baizley has toned down his ferocious scream to a more palatable growl, and the group’s mountainous riffs are digestible in a way they weren’t quite before. A further signifier of the album's ambition is the group’s decision to hire Dave Fridmann as a producer. Fridmann is most famous for his work with indie-rock groups like Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev — bands not typically associated with an act like Baroness.
Baizley and the group’s evolving musical oeuvre would probably be less meaningful if Purple wasn’t such a powerful and expertly-made album. Songs like “Shock Me” start with innocent, symphonic moments before succumbing to an avalanche of guitars and machine-gun drums. Then there are reflective, wordless hymns, like “Fugue,” and nakedly emotional paeans, like “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain?).” Album centerpiece “Chlorine and Wine” is a frightening tale of injury and recovery, but ends on the emotive and triumphant coda of the band screaming together, “Please/Don’t lay me down/Under the rocks where I found/My place in the ground!”
Like many of the songs on the album, “Chlorine and Wine” is impossible to listen to without thinking of the near-tragic van accident that befell Baroness while the group was on a European tour in 2012. Baizley nearly had to amputate his arm as a result of the crash, and two members were unable to return to the group due to the physical and mental trauma suffered in the accident.
While Baizley sings of deathbed nurses, hospitals, being left by the wayside, and other references that seemingly cite the 2012 crash, he said the group didn’t discuss the accident once during their recording process.
“In one way or another, every song I’ve ever written has been about a crash of some type,” said Baizley, who is also a talented visual artist and designs all the band’s ornate album covers. “Lyrically, I just don’t write songs that are about positive, flowery, romantic things. But, being the realists that we are, we understood that there was the potential for people to interpret these songs about specific events.”
Regardless of the origins of the songs, when they’re played live, the Baroness experience organically becomes a deeply-connective moment for both the band and their fans — a group now comprised of a larger and more diverse legion of followers.
“The cathartic experience of playing live music has not changed over the 13 years of performing,” Baizley said. “But the sense of relief and release I feel as an adult is as intense, if not more than, when I was younger, which I did not expect. The response to this record has been really, really overwhelming. There have been some pretty dramatic changes in the way that our audiences react to our songs, and I couldn’t be happier about that.”
Baroness plays the Regency Ballroom on June 2 with openers Youth Code. Tickets are $25. More information is available here.