In the beginning, it appeared BARONESS was chasing the sludge-prog shadows of MASTODON and ISIS. Between "The Red Album" and their 2007 split with UNPERSONS, "A Grey Sigh in a Flower Husk", the uber-talented BARONESS initially made a name for themselves by turning ugly tones into frequently stunning grandiosity. Of course, the Amazonian-mused psychedelics adorning BARONESS' albums (courtesy of vocalist/guitarist John Dyer Baizley) had a hand in prompting interest in the art metal underground.
Then came "Blue Record" in 2009. Up went the experimentation in BARONESS' songwriting theory. More expansive, more meticulous, richer than even they must've thought themselves capable of at the time of recording. "Blue Record" is to "The Red Album" what "Crack the Skye" is to "Remission" for MASTODON, and "Wavering Radiant" to "Oceanic" in the case of ISIS. All cases of evolution. While changing palettes of color on the latter groups' albums, so too has BARONESS tinkered with their own hues and moods.
A lot of changes came to MASTODON's blueprint on their latest album "The Hunter" and so too have they come for BARONESS on their newest offering, "Yellow & Green". In fact, the changes are so abrupt and so left-of-center from the abrasive thunder modes BARONESS began with one has to feel this is veritably a different band. No longer chasing MASTODON's shadow, BARONESS seem far more interested in taking lessons from MOGWAI, THE FLAMING LIPS, BLUE OYSTER CULT, THIN LIZZY, U2, RIDE and other less-metal variables with "Yellow & Green". Moreover, BARONESS does away with long-winding drone, drenching chords and deafening titania. These are near-standard, far shorter songs on "Yellow & Green" with full harmony and affective melodies. It's almost dumbfounding they come from a once-shrill juggernaut like BARONESS.
This, of course, stands to alienate the band from their original doom and sludgecore followings. For their sheer balls, score BARONESS a gimme four points towards "Yellow & Green"'s rating. Almost nobody could convincingly pull off such a stunt as BARONESS gets away with on "Yellow & Green" and not pay a penalty for it. Time will tell if the fans stick by BARONESS for their gratuitous genre bending, because the booms come in increments, while the remainder of "Yellow & Green" is one decorative rock jam after another. A few of the results are perplexing, some of it so down-tempo it leaves shudders. Yet most of the group's bald-faced tinkering on this album rings so brilliantly it defies logic to salute them for changing their direction. Any other band would be accused of selling out.
With more hooks than Kevin Van Dam's tackle box, "Yellow & Green" is sometimes heavy, frequently cosmic and overall infectious. Despite the lack of a coherent theme between the 18 songs comprising this double album, it's BARONESS' will to push the envelope that gives it mucho mojo. Some might argue "Yellow & Green" is too pop-friendly compared to "The Red Album" and "Blue Record" and in many cases, BARONESS does test the waters with their gutsy tunefulness. "Take My Bones Away", "March to the Sea", "Foolsong", "Back Where I Belong", "Collapse" and "The Line Between" are not what you're expecting coming into this album, but none of it is bad. It's quite the opposite.
Still carrying bits of crunch beneath the album's alt swoons, BARONESS employs much of the same delicate crossover methods as MOGWAI and these songs loft instead of careen. "Take My Bones Away" gives the impression it's going for the jugular after jumping straight out of the aquatic opening instrumental, "Yellow Theme", then it surprises with some unapologetic musicality. A memorable chorus and throwback synthesizer sprinkles in the breakdown?you already know BARONESS is leading you into territories they haven't yet gone before but they're fearless in approaching.
The subsequent cut "March to the Sea" is equally melodious though still carrying muddy amps and wallowing vocals from John Dyer Baizley. Much as you get the impression BARONESS is dabbling in some adult alternative, they hammer down the song before it gets too sticky-sweet. They even dash in some subliminal hoedown lines beneath "March to the Sea"'s steady throb. From there, the first half of "Yellow & Green" measures BARONESS' capacity to blend BLUE OYSTER CULT spaceout maneuvers with whatever suits them. Hard not to the think of both WEEZER and THE CURE on "Little Things", which still keeps to a celestial hum. It's not a perfect marriage, but certainly entertaining.
One of the highlights of "Yellow & Green"'s opening half is "Twinkler". This one might be thought of as a hybrid of acoustic folk metal and KANSAS' "Dust in the Wind". The vocal harmonizing is excellent and the dreamy electric-acoustic mingling is captivating. The song's planted coldwave and artificial insect buzzing is unsettling and outright weird sitting in the midst of largely-driving numbers, yet it perfectly sets up for the lucid rocker "Cocanium". Boldly cut from BLUE OYSTER CULT straight down to a throwback analog verve, fuzzy bass lines from Summer Welch and swooning Mellotron, "Cocanium" gets high on itself and then finishes on a loud, satisfying note.
Much of the remainder of "Yellow & Green" is apt to shock or enrapture BARONESS' listeners, depending on their open-mindedness. "Back Where I Belong" is so apposite of what people's conception of BARONESS is you either adore its breezy swing or you're not going to finish the ride. Go ahead and finish the ride. The gnarly twin solo from Baizley and Brian Blickle is the payoff to "Back Where I Belong", along with the denser and meatier final stanzas. "Sea Lungs" may remind you of long-ago U2 and MISSION UK, but it's pretty astounding how BARONESS can effectively build themselves a playground based on multiple variations and emerge victorious more often than not. It worked for RIDE long ago, now it works, wild enough, for a metal-rooted unit such as BARONESS.
While the second half of "Yellow & Green" will be the more challenging for some listeners, BARONESS continues to impress with their detailed, FLAMING LIPS alt outpourings. "Green Theme" shows BARONESS studying the distortion sculpting prowess of BORIS and they nearly capture the latter's might in the booming sections of the instrumental. On the flipside, "Board Up the House", "Foolsong", "Stretchmarker", "Collapse" and "Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)" are so devoid of the sonic crush which BARONESS first made themselves known it's disconcerting to a tee. Yet it's also remarkable how much depth they're capable of as musicians. Difficult to fathom stamping amp creatures could fuse some of AIR's knobby electronic ricochets into their craft on the wistful and ethereal "Collapse", but BARONESS pulls it off.
At least "Psalms Alive" and "The Line Between" bring the loud back along with some wa-splashed reverb. BARONESS rings like THIN LIZZY on "Psalms Alive" and an early nineties alt group (with some more THIN LIZZY razzle-dazzle in the solo section) on "The Line Between". You either consider it a fair trade for showmanship, or you don't. BARONESS seals their audacious outing with the echoing melancholia of "If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry", in the veins of EARTH, U2 and Duane Eddy combined. It serves as a gorgeous, twanging outtro to a highly plucky endeavor.
Granted, not everyone's going to buy into what BARONESS has achieved with this album. Some are going to undoubtedly dismiss it as betrayal. That's part and parcel when you're artisans instead of settlers. The scattered wayfaring BARONESS employs on "Yellow & Green" creates an ultimately dizzying effect but in the end, they turn in one of the most adventurous and coolest albums of the year.