It's difficult not to cast the 2016 version of Baroness as a very different band than the one that existed a decade before. Mere months after their expansive, experimental 2012 double album Yellow & Green was released, the band suffered a catastrophic bus accident while on tour in the UK. Drummer Alan Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni sustained major spinal injuries and had to leave the band, while singer-guitarist and frontman John Baizley had to recover from severe injuries, including a broken left arm and leg, before returning to music.
That Yellow & Green seemed to suggest a divergence from the Southern sludge-metal roots of the band, with its emphasis on lengthy compositions and more intricate melodies over the group's more ferocious tendencies. That combined with the rupture of losing band members and the extended recovery time necessary following its release left open the possibility of a very different Baroness emerging from the wreckage, if the band continued at all. When it was announced that their comeback record Purple was helmed by famed producer Dave Friedman of The Flaming Lips, that theory appeared borne out.
But as it turns out, Purple, for all of the Friedman-esque touches that linger around the edges of the record, ended up feeling like a concise distillation of Yellow & Green, while also packing the punch of what drew headbangers to the band in the first place. Songs like "Shock Me" rode seering momentum and a giant chorus into territory that sounds like a would-be rock radio juggernaut, if not for the gritty delivery, while ballads like "Chlorine & Wine" prove the band is as rangy as ever. For a group with nearly 15 years under its belt, it was a surprising triump and high watermark.
"For me, it's always complete continuation," says Baizley, when asked about the expectations surrounding the band. "The adjustments we've made to the lineup over 14 years or whatever, they've all come in at times when they've needed to, and nobody has ever left the band on bad terms or without the desire to move on. For us, it's simply been a matter of trying to continue what we're doing in the way we need to do it."
For Baizley, that's not necessarily a commitment to the Southern sludge sound or even to staying within the metal genre — he puts it in terms of a sort of ideological attitude. "Something fundamentally ours needs to still be intact," he says.
And in truth, the band has always twisted and bent the notion of metal to suit its own idiosyncratic needs. Baizley's vocals have always been a bit cleaner, his tendency toward hooks and melodies more prominent, and the band's progressive leanings apparent. It's just that they've rarely made for an easy target. Although their early records were produced by fellow Savannah metal kinsman Phillip Cope of Kylesa, prior to working with Friedman Baroness had worked with John Congleton (Modest Mouse, St. Vincent), who, like Friedman, was another blue-chip producer who doesn't often dip his toes into heavier music.
Baizley calls working with Friedman a "dream of ours," but acknowledges it is a bit of a surprising fit.
"I don't know what he heard in our music," he says. "But the thing about working with producers at that level is that you have to get their attention somehow. Whether it's through the people you work with or reaching out, or if he had heard something and was interested. People know who he is and he's done incredible work, which is why he's always been at the top of the list. However, to work with people like that, you have to have financial backing and something going for you outside of that — a mutual interest, I guess. He wouldn't have worked with us if he didn't want to."
The appeal of working with someone like Congleton or Friedman also seems to get to the heart of Baizley's philosophy, that ideological bent he mentioned earlier.
"It is my express belief that if you work with a producer who has a history of working with bands similar to you, that you'll get their bag of tricks — which might not be a bad thing — but you'll get that and the expertise and know-how that comes from working within a genre," he explains.
"However, if you step outside that and work with people who are either largely unfamiliar with the style you play or simply don't care about the modern rules or trends in production, then I think you as a band or you as a producer are working outside the lines and that's where you discover things and make up new rules."
As for whether he ever has concerns about charges of sellout from diehard fans concerned about Baroness leaving behind the world of metal for greener, more commercial pastures, Baizley also has little concern. He sees the music he and his band makes as part of a larger tradition, one very much concerned with keeping the spirit of rock music alive.
"I don't believe at the core of any diehard music listener that they don't in some way yearn for growth," he says. "I mean, Pink Floyd didn't become what they were because they didn't grow. Led Zeppelin didn't become what they were because they weren't willing to break out of the blues model. That's what we're doing; we just have a lot longer history of rock music to draw from. And I think one of the hallmarks of our sound is that there are still moments that celebrate the parts of metal that we love, that we can't get tired of."
"It's never been my intention to be an easy fit," he continues. "I think our job and our duty is to take a format of music that is largely considered to be in its last breath and find some revitalization. Before we live in a completely digitally generated music world — and we're on the verge of that; I'm not arguing about it or condemning it — while I know that's the case, I still think there is life."