The notion of a critical darling is an inherently interesting one, mostly because it sets up no expectation other than runaway success. Potential failure is never seen as an option, and depending how the act in question will follow up on their success, it’s something that often bends the narrative to where that failure can never be an option, and every excuse in the world will be made for anything that can be deemed even remotely questionable. That’s not to say that failure should necessarily be expected, and on the topic of Baroness, that’s certainly the case, but going into their newest huge album Gold & Grey, there’s an amount of confidence going in that feels almost unable to be reasonably met. And by all definitions, Baroness are most certainly a critical darling, especially when every one of their albums up to now has received glowing coverage that’s been pretty much entirely justified, but when that’s the case, it leads to a degree of complacency on the part of those doing the covering that feels as though it should be noted. It’s become the easy route to shower any new Baroness album in praise (a bit like the majority of their peers in the Georgia hard rock and metal scene), and that can make it difficult to discern whether or not this album can really thrive under the immense weight that’s been consistently dropped upon it. Granted, with pre-release singles Borderlines and Seasons being typically strong, all of this is conjecture and devil’s advocacy at its purest, but the germ of skepticism surrounding Gold & Grey is worth acknowledging regardless, if only to examine how justified it really is.

And with every listen, that germ only keeps growing a bit more each time, as if all the glowing appraisals of Gold & Grey are conveniently missing out the album’s biggest flaws to keep Baroness’ reputation of modern rock’s touchstone of perfection intact. In truth, this is still a very good album, and it’s easy to see why people would like it as much as they do, but this isn’t on the level of an album like Purple, which arguably proved to be Baroness’ best effort at condensing everything great about them into their most digestible, enjoyable package to date. Gold & Grey, on the other hand, is shooting for the stars, where everything is bigger once again but lacks some of the control and finesse of its predecessor, and that really does show in an album that wears its shortcomings so prominently on its sleeve. At its core, there’s still a lot to like here, but to ignore the aspects that aren’t so great would be painting this album in an overly generalised light, which ultimately does it more of a disservice than should really be the case.

It’s only really noticeable in the full context of the album as well, as that’s the clearest picture of just how much Baroness are overextending their reach in terms of what works for them. The number of interludes has already been highlighted as the main sticking point, especially when all of them bar Anchor’s Lament seem to have no synthesis within the tracklisting and only serve to break it up, but the more pressing issue comes in the production. It’s no secret that Baroness have favoured a loud, full-on approach to their sound in the past, but Gold & Grey takes that to a point of out-and-out distraction in places, piling layer after layer of fuzz on Throw Me An Anchor and Broken Halo to the point where it can legitimately drown out the instrumentation that it’s supposed to be helping. For all of the excuses that can be made of that being that point, especially with the album’s focus on duality as a whole, the fact it feels more like a glaring inconsistency than anything else is ultimately what drags it down further. Some tracks do benefit from it overall, like the heavier sear of Seasons playing up some black-metal influences or the shapeshifting heaviness of Tourniquet and Borderlines, but it only highlights how that probably isn’t the best decision when it comes to a full album, and it’s a shame to see the final product dragged down because of it.

That’s not to say that Baroness should look to make their music as pristine as possible either, because to some degree, it’s easy to see why these decisions have been made. Contrast plays such an important role in this album – a fact highlighted by the title itself – and countering the overwhelming darkness and heaviness of the writing and production, Baroness continue to invest in weapons-grade melody that still manages to break through the noise around it. Thus, it’s a testament to Baroness’ ability as a band that they’re still able to come out the other side on a high, especially on tracks like I’m Already Gone that gives Nick Jost’s firm-yet-flexible bass work some fantastic exercise, or I’d Do Anything that simmers in deep, dirgelike pianos and acoustic guitars that serve as the grounding for its haunted atmosphere. Amidst it all, John Baizley’s sonorous bellow remains the consistent source of presence, as the album slithers through a malleable hard rock foundation in a way that Baroness have become so brilliant at, filling in every inch of its hour runtime with creativity and power that feels like the most natural extension of what they’ve brought to the table previously. There mightn’t be a Shock Me or Chlorine & Wine moment that brings deft crossover ability into the equation, but that instead feels averaged out on a compositional level that has a lot to love and appreciate, especially with the wider canvas and constantly looming sense of pathos. For what is reportedly their final colour-based album, there’s a sense of finality and climax, and Baroness bring a sense of magnitude that’s justly earned.

And yet, that climax isn’t quite as satisfying as it could be, mostly because of the fine-tuning that Gold & Grey needs to fully work, rather than just get most of the way and let inertia carry them across the finish line. That’s not to say that this was a lazy move on Baroness’ part either – it genuinely feels like their heart was in the right place in terms of creative decisions made – but when it’s such a crucial hurdle that they can’t stick the landing over, that leads to stumbling that’s hard to ignore regardless of how smoothly everything else runs. But when the view is placed solely on those moments, this feels like a good progression made for Baroness, with the chance for them to stretch their legs again yielding yet another case for why they’re one of the most vibrant and creatively fruitful hard rock bands on the planet. Even if not everything here can reach that level, Gold & Grey feels like a fitting next step for a band constantly evolving and challenging themselves, and when there are moments where this could easily be their most challenging release to date, it all comes together regardless of anything else.

7/10

For fans of: Mastodon, Kylesa, Torche
Words by Luke Nuttall

‘Gold & Grey’ by Baroness is out now on Abraxan Hymns.

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