Album review: Baroness – Stone
Colour us shocked: Baroness remain one of the finest bands on the planet on incredible sixth album, Stone.
Stone speaks to us, sometimes. It did to John Dyer Baizley, almost on the daily in early 2020 as he found himself wandering with his dog amongst the marble, granite, limestone and wrought iron of West Laurel Hill Cemetery near his home in northwestern Philadelphia. Largely devoid of Christian iconography, this quiet collection of grand mausoleums and looming obelisks, polished markers and weatherbeaten sarcophagi touched the Baroness frontman. Too often, his dreams had turned to nightmares in the depths of lockdown, but the seriousness and serenity here settled him.
“Stone is eternal,” he reasons today, over three years since those strolls. “It’s timeless, ageless, inexorable. It can be a memorial; a reminder; something that will last beyond us. Walking through that beautiful environment, there was such quietude, such austerity, such innate natural beauty that I felt this sublime peace. There were so many reminders of our finite time as artists and human beings.”
It’s also the title of Baroness’ magnificent sixth album. While themes of mortality and legacy are writ large throughout, John stresses that we shouldn’t read the message of Stone so simply.
The lump of coal used to fuel the furnace is as much stone as the cut diamond refracting light. A rolling stone gathers no moss. The Druidic Stonehenge has inspired rockers for years – including John, who built his own ‘amp-henge’ while recording 2019’s Gold & Grey. In religion and mythology, Moses’ stone tablets bore the Ten Commandments, while the stone of Arthurian legend released the blade Excalibur only to confirm the once and future king. The rocky projectile flung from David’s sling levelled the Philistine giant Goliath. Sisyphus was punished by Hades for cheating death twice by having to repeatedly drive his great boulder uphill for all eternity.
“My workload felt Sisyphean during that initial quarantine period,” John sighs. “Normally, I take the overwhelming sense of trauma and abject chaos in my life, and I use my music and artwork to transform that accumulated darkness – through some alchemical musical process – into light. Every day I’d try to come up with something beautiful, something meaningful. Then I’d go to bed and the next morning it seemed I’d listen to what I’d done the day before just to put it in the bin.”
That alchemy did produce dazzling brilliance, eventually, of course. And those dark days are only a fleeting part of Stone’s epic creation. Gold & Grey had already marked the end of an era: the career-spanning ‘colour wheel’ that had cycled from 2007’s Red through 2009’s Blue, 2012’s Yellow & Green and 2015’s Purple had already reached the end of its spectrum. John half-jokes that plans to pivot with a ‘Silver’ record were abandoned only due to his and his bandmates encroaching middle-age, but it was undeniably time to begin the next act in the Baroness story.
“I would like to look back at all of our recordings as one continuum,” the frontman says. “These albums aren’t separate pieces of unrelated fiction. They’re parts of one autobiographical art project. But this is a new chapter in the book. And there are many still to write before we’re done.”
Of late, the narrative has been obvious. Arriving in the immediate wake of the catastrophic bus crash at Brassknocker Hill outside Bath that almost ended the band in August 2012, Purple bore the colour of bruising and the defiance of artists who’d stared death in the face. Written with more distance, Gold & Grey was a rumination on the accident’s longer-term effects: John attempting to find the glimmers of gold in a life drained by PTSD and the chronic pain he’d been condemned to by an arm shattered into seven “free-floating” segments. Asked whether he’s still suffering, he twists to show a scar the length of the titanium-reinforced appendage and winces slightly.
“It’s like when you order a soda at a bar,” he expands “Right as it’s poured, it’s very full-flavoured. But as the ice melts and the molecules dissipate, there’s a watering-down effect. The accident has become no less important, no less woven into the fabric of what I do. But it’s integrated into my ordinary, everyday routines after 10 years of dealing with the injuries. On Purple, that pain was very close to the surface: very direct and prosaic. I actually thought Gold & Grey was where we were moving beyond it. Now I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps we never really move beyond things, just farther and farther away from them. But that story is played-out. And like any record written in the early 2020s, Stone has plenty of other darkness to overcome.”
Indeed, more than anything else, Stone is about pillars of certainty in the face of an uncertain world. After five albums with five different line-ups of the band, this is the first where all the players have carried over from the last. Although he doesn’t want to pour “another 15 years” into it, John teases that the album will be the first in a new “trilogy”, fixated not on texture nor weight nor dimensionality, but substance, and the creative possibility to which that gives life.
“This Stone is something solid,” he expands. “It’s a cornerstone; a foundation-stone: something stable in an unstable time. On our other records, I can always hear that presence of a new member, or the absence of an old one. Here, we’ve turned a corner. This might be the first Baroness record since the very beginning which really, truly relies on the chemistry between us – and playing music in a truly instinctual way.”
Barryville, New York, is barely a town, more of a leafy micro-settlement on the Delaware river’s New York/Pennsylvania border. When John was searching for an isolated, equidistant meeting point between Philadelphia (home to himself and co-guitarist/vocalist Gina Gleason) and New York City (stomping ground for bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson) where the quartet could bed-in to begin work properly on recording, the holiday hamlet seemed perfect. But the stately Airbnb into which they moved in November 2020 was a little more than they’d bargained for.
“A couple of days in, we realised there was something strange about the place,” John laughs. “It was a big house with high vaulted ceilings and this man-made pond surrounded by idyllic woods out back. But there were a few rooms we weren’t allowed into. And we kept finding things like a basement gym equipped for older folks, little decorative Buddha figures, and Ozone machines in the bathrooms – which I still don’t understand. We thought it was just a funky spot with New Age vibes. Then we found this book – written in German by the lady who owned the house – and realised it was a place where people came for ‘colonic retreats’. I loved how bizarre that was, but sometimes you’d go into a closet, find some wide PVC piping and just be like, ‘Nope!’”
For Baroness, it was the perfect location to expunge what had been building up inside. Most of the sonic fragments that would make up Stone were written in cold isolation, so it was imperative that the four members come together to cement them into songs. And they wanted to creatively strike out alone, too. Having long since taken logistical ownership with their Abraxan Hymns record label, it was time to “circle the wagons”, using what they’d learned from the renowned likes of Dave Fridmann (Purple and Gold & Grey) and John Congleton (Blue and Yellow & Green) to go “full DIY”, handling all production duties themselves.
“As listeners, we find universal humanity through the singular vision of the individual artist,” John underlines how important shutting away outside noise was in bringing out the idiosyncrasies of that core quartet. “The truly great musicians in history are defined by their individuality: Hendrix, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Amy Winehouse, Daft Punk. It’s their uniqueness that we respond to; their personal expression; their microcosmic example of the human experience.”
Using an arsenal of equipment assembled over two decades of “eBaying and Craigslisting,” John and Gina assembled a studio set-up within the first 36 hours. The mansion’s myriad reflective surfaces – glass, wood, brick, stone – were harnessed for maximum acoustic effect. The next four weeks would see recording from noon to midnight or 2am, with beds pushed up against the walls and a console monitoring station in the main bedroom. Aside from mealtimes and the 2020 presidential election playing out on screens in the background, there were no distractions. Thirty-seven songs were started. Those were whittled that down to 12 before leaving. Ten make it onto Stone.
“It was the most purely musical month of my life,” John reflects. “We didn’t have a grocery store or bar within easy driving distance. There’s a freedom and independence you get, creatively, when there are no distractions, no fifth person in the room. It’s about 100 per cent trust in your bandmates.”
As always, the main hallmarks of the previous album’s production were eschewed. Where Yellow & Green had been “sprawling and varied”, so Purple became “tight; condensed; all killer, no filler.” Then Gold & Grey deployed more layered sounds and experimental techniques, challenging its players – particularly new arrival Gina – to use their instruments in ways they never had before. “That was audio annihilation,” John enthuses. “It became so layered and embellished. So Stone is the opposite: just pure instinct. It wasn’t about constantly overdubbing to create an orchestra of noise, it was seeing how we could orchestrate without even talking about it or analysing what we were doing. Plus Gina was gonna kill me if I didn’t just let her play a solo!”
For another band, ‘pure instinct’ could be a cliché. Not for Baroness.
From the moment you press ‘play’, the rustic vitality of those Barryville sessions hums beneath the surface. Songs were rehearsed right to the brink of being nailed, then ‘record’ was hit just in time to capture the magic moment as each clicked. Ambient sounds were embraced: voice breaks, squeaking stools, dropped drumsticks. From the fiery crackle and dreamy acoustic guitars of Embers (‘Build me a home of ember and chain / Leave me a simple life’) the results are all-enveloping. The tweeting birds, rustling trees and wind buffeting the microphone on the haunting intro to Magnolia are held over from Gina’s rushed recording to pick it out before her fingers went numb in the frosty crispness of the great outdoors. Closing track Bloom, meanwhile, throws the kitchen sink at us as the curtain drops, incorporating countless non-instruments, from the whisper of caressed sponges to the pizzicato hum of an ornamental Italian mandolin.
Like a volcanic monolith, there is a rugged, glinting surface beauty to the record, but real reward is reserved for those who split the surface: a million glassy shards of memory and imagination, countless Easter eggs from albums past, and mineralised veins of agony, despair and defiance.
Perhaps most striking is 199-second rager – and the album’s sole “proper single” – Anodyne. Despite a title that means ‘bland’ or ‘inoffensive’, it is surely Baroness’ most immediate banger since Shock Me, built from the same kind of bludgeon as 2007 classic Isak, while John’s soft lyrical intonations (‘In my dreams we’re gonna fall forever / Where the surface meets the sky’) run like cool water down a jagged mountainside. The opposition between title and song, instrumentation and vocal style, John confirms, is emblematic of Baroness’ energy. Tension breeds exhilaration.
“There’s always something contradictory or inverse in my writing. The pain and melancholy in my lyrics doesn’t work well in a vacuum. They need the excitement and exuberance of my drummer, the sophistication of our bassist, the textural technicality of our other guitarist and vocalist. The counterbalance between my touchy-feely approach and their need for bombastic fun is why Baroness’ music has endured. It’s not some funny juxtaposition; it’s our identity!”
Away from his own music, John finds no experience more consistently exhilarating than arriving at a show half-an-hour late. The rush to grab tickets. The anticipation of descending some murky stairwell. A pulsating bassline spiking your heartbeat. Skin prickling as higher notes bleed in. The thrill of pushing through that door into the show space as the music just happens.
“It’s the kind of thing you’ve seen in movies dozens of times because it is so cinematic,” John grins. “You can throw off all baggage and all your bullshit, and be in a room that is purely energy. It’s a feeling I find as readily available at extreme grind shows as I do at punk shows as I do at pop shows as I do at folk shows. Music is a communal thing. I love how it can take our hurts – our individual bumps, bruises, scrapes, cuts, frustrations, stresses, loss, heartache – and allow us to springboard back into the brightness, to enjoy life with all the more dimension and contrast because of it.”
Six albums in – somehow all classics – Baroness simply refuse to deliver any less than transcendent elation. Keeping in touch with the live environment is vital to maintaining a consistent energy without artistic repetition. On one hand, their recent three-hour ‘Your Baroness’ deep dives allowed reconnection with overlooked corners of their own discography. Going in as a fan, though, can be even more vital. It is no coincidence that on a good week, John might attend as many as six or seven shows. On a bad week he’ll make it to “only” two or three.
“You progress as you innovate, as you evolve, as you adapt, as you encompass new sounds, new textures, new ideas,” he nods. “You have to have sharp instincts about when it’s genuine or when it’s not. The lacklustre jadedness of some ‘veteran’ acts isn’t just unpleasant. To me, it’s terrifying. I don’t ever want to be unimpassioned or bored. Sometimes when I’m watching a younger band, it might be absolute garbage music, but the conviction and the energy with which it's played – the swagger, the verve, the physicality – sells me, and I begin to question whether it’s really garbage music after all. I would always rather imbibe that youthful exuberance as it’s in line with my own thinking, my own excitement about playing music.”
John’s insatiable appetite for firebrand inspiration has worked its way spectacularly into this autumn's Sweet Oblivion U.S. tour. Baroness’ rotating bill of supports is a veritable who’s who of heavy, with everyone from Jesus Piece, Portrayal Of Guilt and KEN Mode to Chat Pile, Soul Glo, Imperial Triumphant and a host of others representing extreme music’s most serrated cutting-edge.
“Those are just my favourite artists right now,” John shrugs. “I’ve seen them all play live – 85 per cent of them this year. They’re all operating at that 10-out-of-10 level. Even if they don’t sound like Baroness, they’re all coming from the same place that we do in terms of spirit, attitude, background, worldview... They’re the bands adventurous enough to push themselves into the realms of extremity. Asking any of them out on a whole two-month tour would be a massive commitment, but getting them to jump on for a few local dates at a time gives them the low-risk opportunity to play new crowds, and us this incredible variety of supports. It’s important to make an extreme effort to support musicians that are the future of the community that we call home.”
Looking to Baroness’ own future, John exudes more ease and excitement than he has in some time. Getting to complete a full tour cycle for Stone without the chaos of bus crashes, pandemics or departing members would be nice. Bringing a Your Baroness tour to the UK and Europe would be pretty great, too. And there’s now that new trilogy to complete. “I want to keep punching upwards,” he shrugs. But beyond that? They’re open to whatever comes next.
Where many contemporaries see their career as a linear journey from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ – a path to be fallen off at any point – John prefers to view Baroness’ journey as a Big Bang-like universal expansion from a solid centrepoint outwards, gaining perspective as they look ahead, backwards and sideways all at the same time. “Realising we could write hooky choruses was a big moment for us. Before we did, we didn’t know we could. The same thing with stripped-back acoustic songs. It’s not the specific notes or melodies you hear when you do those new things. It’s our enthusiasm.”
20 years since Baroness’ Big Bang, though, John wants to help guide the next generation to theirs.
Drowning out the ever-growing background noise to find that singular purpose is vital, he says: “I’d like to offer a different perspective to the current idea that social media driven commercialism is important to music. Because it’s not. At all. That’s just marketing. Coming up in the ’90s, you’d call people doing those kinds of things ‘sell-outs’, ‘posers’ or ‘corporate’. Those were the coarse and basic words of teenage me, but I still prefer them to the constant ‘Click the subscribe button!’ thing that we have now. Everyone’s brilliant at advertising. I need you to be brilliant at music!”
Mostly, though, fans and artists should see Stone as a monument to unleashing brilliance on your own terms.
“With enough creative power, ambition, drive of a real genuine connection and understanding of the music community, you do not need a big team of people to do everything that we're doing. We wrote. We engineered. We recorded. We produced. We even mixed a little bit. We made the artwork and we’re making our own videos. We’re marketing, promoting, releasing it. Everything that’s on this record was the work of four people with a non-existent budget. And it is all ours. Ultimately, it’s about ensuring you reclaim your independence as you grow and not giving that authority away.”
Stone is released on September 15 via Abraxan Hymns
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