Out of the Mire
Baroness Rise Beyond the Realm of Swamp Metal
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There should be some sort of shorthand term for the currently popular crossbreed of Black Sabbath's slow-hand groove and mid-era Black Flag's road-worn nihilism. Flaggath metal? Doesn't quite roll off the tongue. But it seems necessary to give the recent flood of sinister blues-scale riffs, bashing half-time beats, shredded vocals, and accentuation of piss and vinegar over precision a proper handle.
Some folks have been throwing around the term "swamp metal," and it looks like it might stick. It's a fair moniker—though the infusion of punk scrappiness into classic metal forms has a long history in the Northwest, with the Melvins and their ilk, the muggy South is currently the epicenter for the artists churning out this particular hybrid. At the forefront of this burgeoning scene are Savannah's Baroness. The band's early recordings are textbook examples of the sound: thick, meaty riffs; heavy-handed drumming; and enough vitriol and recklessness to keep the band off of commercial radio. But they began broadening their horizons with their first proper full-length, Red Album. They brought elements of prog and classic rock into play. It seemed that they were taking cues from their Atlanta-based neighbors Mastodon, opting for cheap speed and psychedelics instead of cheap beer and weed.
Baroness's latest offering, Blue Record, is poised to be their breakthrough album. The band scored a "Best New Music" stamp of approval from Pitchfork and has landed upcoming dates opening for Metallica. Is it possible that a scene that once spawned career-suicide acts like Eyehategod and Buzzov*en will actually have its moment in the sun? The popularity of Blue Record makes a certain amount of sense; Baroness have honed their songcraft skills without dialing back their delivery or dumbing down their arrangements. The album is impressive because it can be casually enjoyed as an approachable rock record, studiously examined as a technical metal album, and, if their underground status holds against their increasing popularity, prized as a crusty cult classic. What's strange is that the accessibility of the album hasn't disappointed the longtime fans. What's even stranger is that the band is now one of the biggest names in a scene with which it no longer shares many sonic ties.
Baroness have a keen sense of melody, as is evident in the instrumental balladry of the opening track, "Bullhead's Psalm." And they can play the shit out of their instruments, as when the band drops the Ren-fair minstrel act and launches into the ferocious fretboard savvy of "The Sweetest Curse." The song opens with a thrash riff that could've been lifted from any of the classic speed-metal albums from the latter half of the '80s, then transitions into a boisterous and bellowing call-to-arms chorus reminiscent of Gainesville's hardcore heroes Hot Water Music. Then there's the dueling guitar leads thrown in the middle of the song where the band channels the harmonizing hooks of Thin Lizzy. This combination of approaches—the energized up-tempo playing, the anthem-ready vocals, and the near-campy showmanship—is remarkably effective, but it has little to do with the cough-syrup-induced tempos, deliberate discord, and reductionist technique of your standard swamp metal band.
No doubt, these deviations are the reason for Baroness's success. While half of the metal community was scratching their heads over the buzz generated by the Sword's predictable by-the-book stoner rock, Baroness have earned their accolades by continually throwing the listener for a loop—whether with the Tesla-esque acoustic interlude of "Steel That Sleeps the Eye," the flagrantly excessive use of chorus and tremolo on "Swollen and Halo," the dance-floor beat thrown into "A Horse Called Golgatha," or any number of guitar solos so overblown that they drown everything else out of the mix. There are so many WTF moments on Blue Record that subsequent listens are mandatory. Did they really just do that? Yes, they did. Are they allowed to do that? Well, now they are. And really, isn't that how the most memorable records hit you the first time you hear them?
But what's most promising about Blue Record throwing caution to the wind is that it sets an example for bands occupying the sonic territory Baroness explored in their first few releases. If a scene is at the point where people are searching for words to define it, it's probably already reached its creative apex. Such is the case for flaggath, pardon me, swamp metal. Fortunately, Baroness demonstrate how to elaborate upon and, more importantly, circumvent the Southern formula. Let's hope Baroness's peers take inspiration from the Savannah boys' creative risks and get out of the swamp once in a while.