A Lesson in Musical Versatility: A Case Study
Some musicians have the uncanny knack of remaining within a specific style for their entire careers, and sounding utterly amazing in the process. Others might hit on a great sound early on and then spend the rest of their creative lives trying to distance themselves from that one big hit. Then there are those bands who seem to be able to jump from genre to genre, mood to mood, vibe to vibe, yet still somehow sound like themselves even when exploring forms that fall outside the established category within which we expect to see them.
Case in point: Baroness. The profile of this band from Savannah, Georgia, has been steadily building for a while now, and the general feeling is that their newly released double album, Yellow & Green, is going to be the one to really break their career wide open. They appeal to metal crowds, hard rock fans, classic rock folks and maybe even the occasional jam band connoisseur. And the new album has just landed at #30 on the Billboard chart, a huge leap from the #117 debut of their previous album, Blue Record. Of course, Yellow & Green has a lot to offer the non-musician listener, but for musicians it’s almost a textbook of how to remain musically versatile within the context of a consistent band sound.
One way Baroness reinforces the sense of versatility and drama within their music is through the use of interesting panning in the stereo spectrum. The guitars of Peter Adams and John Baizley are often panned widely apart, emphasizing the differences between their guitar parts. Tighter panning would make everything blend in just that little bit more, but a wider soundstage really draws the listener’s attention to the musical variation within a song, even if you’re using the same guitar and amp for an entire record.
Speaking of guitars and amps, Adams is a longtime Les Paul fan, currently favoring a Gibson Les Paul Traditional with Bigsby tailpiece. “It’s kind of like an ’80s Standard,” he says. “It’s great! I’m playing that now more than anything else. That guitar sounds great. It’s got the ’57 Classic and the ’57 Classic Plus in the bridge [the Hot Vintage Matches Pickup Set] and it’s awesome.”
And it’s no mean feat to achieve this level of sonic variety in a double album format. An important function of the double record concept is that as a fan you know you’re listening to a double record, and it’s hard to separate the individual songs from the context. Think of Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness, or Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, or Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Those albums mean so much to listeners because they’re forced to put time aside to immerse themselves in them, and the longer format gives the artist a certain amount of creative license to “go long” when it comes to dwelling on ideas which may otherwise have been glossed over.
“We just kept writing more and more material, and we didn’t want to just put out one record with an overloaded number of tracks,” Adams explains. “That would just wear you out. One record with 17, 18 tracks is just overkill. So we wanted to split it up so it was easy for everybody to digest at once.”
The idea was to allow listeners to absorb each disc of the album as a cohesive experience within itself. So the first disc is more hard-hitting while the second explores more atmospheric terrain. This isn’t a hard and fast rule though: elements of each disc’s overriding moods find their way into each other disc. And whether you’re into Baroness or not, it’s worth giving the set a few decent spins and listening to how they layer their guitars, how they maintain consistent tones when appropriate, how they pull out wild, frankly weird tones when that’s appropriate. Each disc is also prefaced by its own theme.
“No matter what we do we still want to maintain our identity,” Adams says. “And no matter what it is that we’re doing, my only hope is that you still hear Baroness. We had so many ideas. We started writing for this in January of 2009 and everybody had so many ideas. I’m always the guy that’s coming out with the rock ’n’ roll songs, the heaviest riffs I can. And in Baroness we’re all contributing writers.”
The meditative “Twinkler” has almost a 1970s prog feel, more Yes and King Crimson than Dream Theater or Symphony X. “Right on! That song was an idea that John had and it was just a simple chord progression. We explored writing around that progression as maybe a part to another whole song. But the more we listened to that chord progression, and the more we played it and the more we messed around with it, the more we realized we should just leave it the same and stop messing around with it. Honestly, what is recorded is the very first idea, with a few other things added for ambience.”