posted on 10/2009 By:
Few albums in 2009 have been hyped to the degree that Blue Record has. Okay, let's be honest--no albums have been anointed with such preemptive praise. I was half-surprised at the lack of a garish "Album of the Year!!" sticker emblazoned on Blue Record's gorgeous cover, but Relapse has, thankfully, kicked their construction-grade adhesive addiction for the time being.
Though, if any band were deserving of such hype, it'd be Baroness. Their first full-length, Red Album, was an absolutely phenomenal rock record. Then, in the wake of its release, the band proved themselves to be top-tier showmen. The lone Baroness performance I managed to catch last year was among the tightest, most inspirational displays I'd ever witnessed; in my eyes, it established them as the must-see live act currently floating around on the lighter side of High on Fire.
The point of this preface? First, to address the fact that while the Blue Record hoopla is a smidge out-of-control, quite a bit of it is fuckin' justified. This is not calculated propaganda; this is fandom in action.
Secondly, it's a bunch of self-serving bullshit to reinforce my standing as a massive Baroness fan, which I feel to be wholly necessary in light of the woefully underwhelming nature of Blue Record itself.
Aesthetically, Blue Record retains what was fleshed out on Red Album. Baroness still rock the rollicking, un-sludged, crusted-up vibe better than anyone, largely due to the warm wafts of smoke that breeze their way through their steadily-churning gears. A palpable brightness, a loose sense of youthfulness--the band's intangibles are the envy of many.
But Blue Record lacks Red Album's immaculate flow. It's a more abrasive affair--somewhat belying the color scheme--and this isn't a favorable shift. In fact, it's not even clear if it's an intentional one. Where "Swollen and Halo" rocks a satisfying rumblequake, the somewhat flaccid "Jake Leg" suffers mightily from John Dyer Baizley's grating vocals. Baizley is very hit-or-miss with his gruff howling, and it doesn't mesh well with the band's wispier passages. Even "Swollen and Halo," swagger and all, is plagued by some underdeveloped vocal ideas, and his tuneless bellowing on "The Sweetest Curse" and "War, Wisdom, and Rhyme" borders on boorish. Metalheads seem to have an absurd tolerance for sub-par vocals (especially in the modern strains of sludge, where anyone with a hint of Neurosis influence can seemingly get away with murder), but the vocals on Blue Record severely detract from the fluidity of the compositions.
These examples are all the more frustrating when contrasted with “A Horse Called Golgotha” and “The Gnashing,” which are among the best songs the band has penned. Here, Baizley’s vocals are sparse, but perfectly impassioned and expertly timed.
Within instrumental jams and soulful interludes, Blue Record finds its strength. “Steel that Sleeps the Eye” features soothing, layered clean vocals on top of acoustic strumming, something that the band should further explore. “Ogeechee Hymnal” and “O’er Hell and Hide” are the most stunning pieces the album has to offer; and while the latter track isn’t truly an instrumental, the minimalist vocals are unintelligible and relegated to the background, allowing the band to do what they do best.
In spite of containing some of the band’s most impressive material, Blue Record isn’t nearly as cohesive or complete as Red Album, unfortunately rendering it more of a time-killer than a religious experience. But there’s where we come full circle. It's unrealistic to expect perfection, the greatest album of the year, or the summoning of Chthulu. To set oneself up for such an event is a recipe for disappointment. Instead of being the apex of the band’s seemingly limitless potential, Blue Record is merely a transitional record. Experimentation abounds, but there’s a lingering feeling of emptiness that can't be quelled by repeated listens. This hunger might only be satiated after hearing these songs performed live--or even likelier, after Baroness’ next LP.
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