Day Forty-One: Codeine – Frigid Stars LP

Numero Group ■ 201.1
(Originally released on Sub Pop)
Released August, 1990
This compilation released June 19, 2012
Produced by Mike McMackin and Codeine

Side One: Side Two:
  1. D
  2. Gravel Bed
  3. Pickup Song
  4. 3 Angels
  5. New Year’s
  1. Second Chance
  2. Cave-In
  3. Cigarette Machine
  4. Old Things
  5. Pea

Around the time I moved out of my last home, I realized that I was moving somewhere that record stores were not going to be anything like convenient (and so they aren’t–it’s at least an hour’s drive to find new records). So, with a measure of money in hand (that which I thought I could spare), I decided to “clean house” on my desired purchases at the then-local stores. While I was, in majority, picking up CDs I’d been eyeing for sometime, I also decided that the temptation of the Codeine reissues was just too great. I asked the owner of CD Alley in Chapel Hill (whose band may show up here later, if I continue intermittent reviews of 7″s) if he had a stance, and he said unfortunately he had not personally gone in the direction of Codeine, and had never heard one singled out. I’ve worked enough retail that, considering they were five or ten minutes from closing, I decided to just grit my teeth and grab one. Frigid Stars LP was the first album, so it seemed like a logical starting point for me as well.

If you pick any of these Codeine reissues up, in the literal sense, you immediately notice how thick they are: about that of a triple LP of decent weight vinyl. You can actually see the vertical fold on the front cover where it opens, rather than simply folding directly at the spine. Alongside that, an expanded CD is included with them that assembles demos and assorted other tracks not originally included. Add in the fact that it’s also an expanded LP (with a whole second platter that is composed of the bonus material on the CD), and it’s just too darn tempting. Inside you even find full, 12×12″ stapled booklets of liner notes: history, essays, recording and personnel notes–all the stuff I’d want, or close enough to it. I have a longtime policy of thinking there must be something to an album that receives treatment like this but doesn’t have the kind of visibility that tells you that maybe it’s just something they think a whole ton of people will re-buy because a whole ton cubed bought it in the first place. So far, this has been an extremely successful approach to take. 

I’m not sure what told me to check out Codeine, though. Maybe there was a comment about how good they were in something I read, or maybe their name came up in connection with Galaxie 500, who I was rather into the last year or so. Maybe it was my intrigued object-lust for the records when I saw how they were put together (I’m not above being suckered in by a well-made record package or sleeve art or the like). Whatever it was, I knew nothing of them at all, other than genre designations that had only vague meaning at most, which was in no way a method of understanding what they were or sounded like.

I do have to add that I find it frustrating when bands name albums things like Frigid Stars LP. Is that a designator, because this is an LP? Is it part of the actual title? If it is, is there some particular need for it to be? I’ve settled on the same thing as everyone else, I guess: the art says “LP” at the end, so we treat it as part of the title. 

“D” starts the album and is kind of jarring in its way: one big beat allowed to hang around followed by a slowly single-picked guitar, repeated, then lethargic movement forward into Stephen Immerwahr’s rather somber and morose vocals, listing what “D” is for–“‘D’ for effort/’D’ for intent/’D’ because you pay the rent…” The pacing is incredibly deliberate, but for his voice, you might think this was intended to be played at 45rpm, though none of the instruments have the stretched distortion of a recording played back too slowly. The guitars in particular–as well as a splash cymbal that is allowed an unusually rapid beat for the rest of the song–begin to accelerate, their sound no longer spaced out, adding up to a wave of noise as Immerwahr sings the chorus with more need. But when we come back to the verse (“‘D’ for dishes/’F’ for floors/Can’t make the grade anymore”), it is still that palpably slowed sound, which allegedly left drummer Orestes Dellatore of Bitch Magnet (with whom they recorded their first version of “Pea”) swinging at cymbals without hitting them a few times for each hit before actually reaching them, just to keep himself from speeding up.

“Gravel Bed” does not pick up the pace, but it does shift the feel of it: at its onset, distorted guitar chords attempting to push at the boundaries of the song’s speed are sewn into place with a thumping bass’s insistent authority, those loud, separated and severely spaced drums no longer a stitch themselves, just a beacon every seven beats (!) to keep things from floating off too far. Where “D” was like a severely slowed curiosity, “Gravel Bed” acts more as a hanging weight, or a weary but determined trudge onward under such a weight. It crescendos in a fashion not unlike “D”, but it actually continues to build upward, and when it clarifies out to the verse’s sound again, it’s less like the aftermath of a crashed down wave whose power dissipates into a more tranquil sensibility, and more like the destructive aftermath of one, shifting the focus from the fact that it is gone to the fact that it indeed was there in the first place and left a skeleton of whatever stood beneath it. 

The beginning of “Pickup Song” is a rapid (for this album, at least) descending set of notes that ends on a high note, turned to clean and minor but chorded guitar. “Don’t remember/Your kiss/Can’t remember/What I miss” is all Immerwahr gets out before a sliding, monolithic bassline from Immerwahr himself carries in the full band and a huge mountain of sound. Now drowned in reverberating bass, constantly splashing cymbal, and a louder, more constant sort of variation on the initial chords, he manages to sing only “Thought you were blind I held your hand/Guess I still don’t understand”, before he lets the bass do the talking for him, playing what amounts to the lead on it. “Wish I’d never seen your face” he sings, and a soured, downward sliding note drops it all off to a final chord. The way that last line comes in isolation, the way the note sours after it, and the final chord–one of the best song endings I can think of.

Originally a B-Side to “Pickup Song”, but included in the U.S. issues of the album,¹ “3 Angels” is a percussive extension of the sound they established on the previous sides: without being so distinct a force, the bass is present but more monotone and rhythmic, the enormous, cold and spacious snare hits are more constant, and even the intro is composed of drums pulling the sound into place. Ever-droning vocally, Immerwahr momentarily escapes that, with a chorus that is knowingly melodic, and somewhat strangely emphasized: “Take a wa-alk…” he sings a good bit higher than normal, but “’round the block” starts at an off-beta, as if the absent “a” from “around” was, itself, an omitted vocal beat, giving a peculiar shape to the whole thing, like two different tunes Frankensteined together. It’s an appealing effect, though it may not sound like it, as it fits brilliantly with the sensibilities of the music Codeine assembled.

“New Year’s” is the written work of Sooyoung Park and Lexi Mitchell of Codeine associates and contemporaries Seam, and, while they work it into their style–particularly pace, of course–it is clearly the work of different writers. Clean guitar and bass with a sort of meager line of hope are accented by all-tom drumming on the verse, light ride-to-splash cymbal on the chorus’s more pop-developed bassline. The thump of the drums returns with the verse, the guitars almost fragile, fragments of the song that the bass, drums and Stephen’s voice all have a complete grasp on. It’s certainly one of the cheerier songs on the album–in tone, at least, as the lyrics are not overly cheerful, certainly not much more than most of the album. It’s particularly worth hearing Stephen’s lead on the bass after the second chorus, working with the guitars to sound like the culmination of an extended song’s emotional journey, despite the 3:34 runtime.

Oceanic rumblings and squalls of distortion mark the opening of Side Two and “Second Chance”: “I miss your smile/It’s been a while” Stephen begins to repeat, as the distortion creeps around the edges of everything, Immerwahr adds a pounding low-end piano note to the end of his vocal lines that often matches his bass, until he begins to repeat “It’s been a while” in isolation, which he follows with a pleasingly piano melody that is still low, but higher than previous notes. The way the distortion–likely the work of Chris Brokaw’s overdubbed second guitar, as opposed to Jeremy Engle’s initial one–floats around everything without ever fading is like a suspension that Immerwahr’s parts sit in, which are only expanded by the return to the initial two lines, repeated again together three times and then just the latter through to the end, as his bass gets a chance to slide momentarily again.

Inspiring the name of hardcore-turned-space-rock-turned-back-into-hardcore band of the same name, “Cave-In” is probably the most “pop” song Codeine turns in for the album from their own pens. Sounds that would later feel completely appropriate in the guitar-laden sounds of Cerberus Shoal-style post rock bands² a couple of years later. Completely in contrast to this, Immerwahr sings quietly: “Last night I dreamt your face/The skin was falling off/The flesh was turning grey…” And then a wall of guitar, bass and drums crashes down thunderously, but now Immerwahr’s voice now turns high and melodic: “This is a cave-in/I said I’d stay/Cave-in…/Said I’d stay”. The loud-quiet-loud approach is also not foreign to the advent of post rock in the latter half of the same decade (though of course Slint had their own hand in that); the verses return to the hushed, isolated guitar and voice sound, while the chorus continues its dramatic and loud sound–a perfectly little squeak coming at its second occurrence, just a little peep of feedback after Stephen sings “This is a cave-in” again. It’s fascinating how the verses are instrumentally most pretty and light despite his voice, while his voice hits the same ground over the crushing fall of the chorus’s instrumental power.

There’s a certain guitar sound that works best when played with the hesitant slowing of single notes picked at a gradually decreasing speed, that, in my mind, always implies a sort of warning of what is to come, and it opens “Cigarette Machine”, bass notes ringing from each first beat, hinting and hinting that an explosion or a fire will follow, there’s a pause as  they ring–and then the guitars are hushed and clean, hi-hat-based beat and spoken words from Immerwahr. It’s a fantastic anticlimax that is both surprising and completely appropriate. There’s a moment of confusion that quickly becomes, “Ah, of course.” When the pounding bass, drums, and distorted guitar burst out of it, filled with the weight of tension built then held, it’s entirely appropriate for it to peter out with the tension of that opening–which again leads instead to quiet and pleasant sounds.

“Old Things” sounds almost like exactly that; the guitars fade in on a wave of feedback, but have the slightest twinge of twang, a patina that ages the sound before it is even heard. There is the echo of the past in them–not some distinct period of rock history, though it’s certainly a musical echo–the sound of a sound bottled and corked and released at the right time. “Walk, just walk away”, Immerwahr sings melodiously, but with lazed acceptance, and his rumbling distorted bass follows, not suddenly infusing the song with aggression, but furthering the feel of the song’s tone in the low end it has previously neglected. It dissolves into splinters of feedback and distortion, one guitar–Engle’s–questioningly pokes in, tired, drifting, deliberate but wispy, and lays the ground out for the song to pick itself back up, as if it fell and only mechanically needed to rise: not shamed, not hurt, just shrugging and walking forward.

With the multitude of recordings of “Pea” that wandered around–Sooyoung Park’s first band, Bitch Magnet, who played a part in getting Codeine signed, actually recorded one of the first commercially released versions with Immerwahr and Engle singing and playing on it, leading to the aforementioned image of Orestes Dellatore’s feinting hits–the version that appears here is the one that was tacked onto the end of the U.S. CD release of Frigid Stars LP. At first glance, it sounds as though it is the acoustic version that appeared on the European CD: Immerwahr sings to his own guitar, of people as peas, small, hard, and mean, in that Princess and the Pea sense of discomfort. There’s a long, pregnant pause after he sings “Just to get you back” for the last time, and then he returns to the opening line: “When I see the sun”, and now Brokaw and Engle weigh in with distorted guitars. Oddly, they don’t change the song’s tone; in one sense, they bring power to Immerwahr’s internal sentiment, and in another they actually manage to surround and almost drown it out, emphasizing the isolated, failing hope that his defiant attempts to make a tiny difference imply.

This release actually contains, as I mentioned, a second LP of “bonus material”, largely composed of demos recorded to encourage signing, some of the demos Immerwahr recorded alone while living with Engle, before they’d actually congealed into a band. It also contains the acoustic recording of “Pea” that graced the European CD, and even their Neil Young-inflected (?!) track “Corner Store”. Because this is bonus material, I am going to give a tracklist and only a general sense of it with highlights, as anything more would be silly and excessive.

Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Castle [Demo]
  2. Skeletons [Demo]
  3. 3 Angels [Demo]
  4. Corner Store [Demo]
  5. Summer Dresses
  1. Pea [Acoustic]
  2. Second Chance [Demo]
  3. Pickup Song [Demo]
  4. Cave-In [Demo]
  5. Kitchen

“Castle” and “Skeletons”, recorded as part of the sessions that contained most of these tracks (all of Side Three, and the last track of Side Four) are a bit out of character: the first riff of “Castle” and the entire pace of “Skeletons” belie the hardcore musical relatives of the band (Brokaw was in a hardcore band called Pay the Man prior to Codeine, played for G.G. Allin [!], Bitch Magnet were more distinctly post-hardcore and on the hardcore end of that genre, etc). Heck, “Skeletons” would not sound too out of place in the early alternative rock descendants of hardcore like Hüsker Dü. The demos of songs later included on Frigid Stars LP are interesting primarily for those who are enamoured of the album itself, and, in this context, don’t encourage much further comment. As with most demos, they are rougher, less clear, and vary slightly as alternate recordings are wont to do. “Corner Store” is an interesting marriage of Immerwahr’s Neil Young vocal impression and the languorous segment of his output as filtered through the sensibilities of Codeine, or, due to pace, maybe a band more like Galaxie 500 (whose sound it is just a tad closer to, vocals notwithstanding). Many of these were actually released under various other names as a tiny home-dubbed cassette (of which there is no internet record at all, shockingly). “Summer Dresses” allows Sooyoung Park to actually make a “visible” appearance, with a beautifully smooth bassline and dreamy vocals from Immerwahr. The guitars (provided by Immerwahr) are clean, simple, but bright and summery, with all the nostalgic yearnings of Galaxie 500. “Kitchen” is an all guitar/voice track, simple track that is the complicated fluff of a clever songwriter fiddling around with ideas and working them out by recording–the lyrics are all descriptions of the immediate: his current activities, the boredom, the state of his life in general.

I don’t mean to ride too heavily on Galaxie, as the comparisons are largely not apt or appropriate (except “Summer Dresses”, which, beyond Park’s bass style, could be mistaken by an incautious ear quite easily). Codeine are more associated with starting the “genre” of slowcore, which inevitably annoys almost every band allegedly responsible for “starting” subgenres that end in “core”, with the possible exception of “hardcore”. No one wants credit for emo, even when it wasn’t just a derogatory term, no one wants to be called “nu metal”, and no one wants to be called “slowcore”, because the names are good for what spawned them–an attempt to condense the sound to a tiny description–but not as a term for an entire “wave” of anything. Other than bands that would deliberately follow the sound and fail to break any new ground, it’s not easy to so cleanly encompass a group of artists.

But the odd thing is, “slowcore” is ridiculously apt for Codeine. It codifies the two most exemplary elements of their music: the deliberate pacing, and the resultant force of that pace, as implied by the hardcore-derived suffix. Whether it’s the “right” term is another issue, but as a functional shorthand for this album (and quite probably their other output), it works–an adjective, rather than a trademarked line drawn around them and other groups, a box to definitively toss them in.

And there is an immense power to what they play: the decisive, measured approach necessary to playing like this is apparent at every moment. Almost every band has a bad habit (or good, depending on your point of view–but usually it’s described as unintentional, even if appreciated) of speeding songs up when played live, but live footage of Codeine proves that, because the pace is so incredibly deliberate, it’s part of the performed version as well. When there’s so much space around the sounds, it lends unbelievable weight to every beat, every note, every chord, every word.

They sound as if they are playing in an empty concert hall–not because they have no one attending, not as some indication of solipsistic isolation or moody claims to isolation, but because it sounds alone. The albums are described as relentlessly depressing by many, but I didn’t necessarily get that impression, even as the lyrics do emphasize it. There’s a closeness, a natural element to the playing that isn’t something just anyone could do, and proves that “Well they play slowly” isn’t enough to describe it. These aren’t “normal” songs slowed to a crawl, they are songs constructed explicitly for this speed. Immerwahr described his inspiration for the idea of a band paced this way as hearing speed metal on the radio and finding it impossible to believe as human in origin. Strangely, that, too, is incredibly relevant: the weight behind Codeine is the purity of humanity, the feeling of being all-too-human, even in the dead moments of boredom and inactivity, of lethargy and drug-induced haze. In the way that fiction inevitably (with exceptions, such as Jarmusch’s occasionally–but, I think, deliberately–painful Stranger Than Paradise) chops time up and feeds back only the important bits, the pace of Codeine is emblematic of the pace of actual life. Not necessarily some deliberate “metaphor”, so much as just the abstracted, objective, observational fact of it. Even when we say time is crawling, it’s rare to feel each and every moment–instead, one looks up and sees less time has past than previously expected. Even when the chords or drum hits are played in sonic isolation, huge gaping chasms left between them, they feel connected enough that it is like that same slowness.

This was a really cool record to pull out of nowhere: I’d even listened to Low (discovered by Galaxie 500 producer Kramer) who also play at a deliberate pace, but nothing really prepared me for the way Codeine so professionally maintains themselves as both huge in sound and calm and deliberate. I suppose, being as the album is over twenty years old, that you might have heard some derivative (or a relative like Low), but none I’ve heard have quite this mastery of pace, where you feel the slowness and hear it, but never feel like it should be any faster, either, other than the fact that it’s so unusual for it not to be.

  • Next Up: Coheed and Cambria – ?

¹The album was first released in Germany, to the confusion of many. Sub Pop’s signing of the band let to its release here, which changed the tracklist somewhat in hopes of encouraging domestic purchase. “Pickup Song”‘s B-Side was included, and a new version of the song “Pea” was attached to the end–which also meant removing the German bonus track: an acoustic version of “Pea”. Confusing enough, but “Pea” was also recorded another time, but before either of those, where it acted as B-Side to the “D” single.

²While I can’t easily reference a popular post rock band (unless you know the genre, your best chance to have heard it outside friends who like it is the soundtrack to 28 Days Later, which contains a track by Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the famous opening moments of an abandoned London)


Day Seventeen: Baroness – Yellow and Green

Relapse Records ■  RR1793

Released July 17, 2012
Produced by Baroness and John Congleton
Engineered and Mixed by John Congleton

Having just addressed an acknowledged classic, I’m getting a few days of brief reprieve before I have to return to more of that kind of pressure. That this album has been calling out to me since it arrived a few weeks back, left unlistened because it’s the beginning of the alphabet and I knew it would have its place here, only helps to ease that transition and make it a happy one. Now, I was worried enough about the person I purchased it from that I crossed my fingers and gave them a great rating as a seller, but it appears I was not wrong (it was carefully slit but otherwise still in shrinkwrap, as it was described). Of course, when it did arrive, I fell down the stairs of my apartment running to catch the postal worker who had mistakenly gathered I was not home. That was a bad week in general.

It’s nice, though, to be able to sit down with an album I picked up on CD (in a similar but less showy–and far less expensive–deluxe format) around its release date. I’d intended to pre-order the deluxe vinyl, but they all sold out very quickly, and then I let the whole thing wait. The reviews rolled in as peculiar, enough to take some of the shine off, but not enough to sour me entirely. When the band was involved in a major road accident (vocalist/lyricist/guitarist John Dyer Baizley described it as their “painful test in motorcoach-aeronautics”), they dumped the tour supply of vinyl online, and I found myself late to the races again, but decided to seek out the ideal version–Shiner’s The Egg had recently arrived in my hands, also somewhat delayed, and in the limited orange colouration, but not the “ideal” orange/white split that would match the cover.

Initially, I’d thought to find the one LP green, one LP yellow edition of the album that was also released in limited quantities, but decided to sate my hunger for a split colouration and get the second most expensive record in my collection (the first is an ultra-limited edition from a run of 250 that is just kind of impressive in general, and it was a present anyway).

This edition, as you have likely seen by now, is on a split yellow/green platter, or rather, two of them. When I first pulled them out, I was momentarily distressed: it appeared I had been left with two of one. But I looked closer (you can do the same) and saw the labels for each were different–a yellow label for Yellow and a green one for Green (naturally). The packaging itself is a bound hardcover “book” of lyrics and illustrations, with pockets at either cover for the actual records. It’s bound with actual string and not just glue, which I discovered as I was following along and listening to Yellow.

Because this album follows Red Album and Blue Record, I’ve taken the liberty of splitting this entry into two parts below: one for each record–perhaps each is a sort of separate album to form the whole or perhaps not, (the two-as-one seems to be a common idea these days–System of a Down did it, and Coheed and Cambria are doing it right now–though in both cases the proposed, established, recorded second half appeared as a later item, rather than in an original set) but I’ve decided to treat it that way. There’s a cohesion and a sort of comfortable split between the two, and the records are distinctly labeled by colouration as I mentioned, and also within the CD and the vinyl packaging where the lyrics are printed. Each is a reasonable (if on the short side) length for an album, too. So, without any further ado, this is Yellow and Green.

Part One: Yellow
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Yellow Theme
  2. Take My Bones Away
  3. March to the Sea
  4. Little Things
  5. Twinkler
  1. Cocainium
  2. Back Where I Belong
  3. Sea Lungs
  4. Eula

When “Yellow Theme” starts, it’s clear that one of the biggest complaints that can come out of the metal community was at least accurate regarding this album: a lot of the aggression, weight, heaviness–the metal parts–are not present on this record as they were with Red Album and Blue Record. Of course, there are instrumental introductions to both of those records, but the introduction to the first is part of a larger, much heavier song (“Rays on Pinion”), and the latter begins with “Bullhead’s Psalm” which winds up to the much heavier “The Sweetest Curse”. “Yellow Theme” fades in like “Rays on Pinions”, but it remains its own song: it  is filled with the atmosphere of the whole of Yellow, a kind of water-y sound, with the vaguely distorted echo of something underwater, but absolute clarity in the heavily harmonized guitars. It’s quite pretty, really–something I’ve found is absolutely normal in metal bands, but is taken as surprising to many who aren’t familiar.

When “Take My Bones Away” begins, you might be left with the impression that you are in for something heavy and abrasive, but as soon as Baizley begins singing, you realized he’s doing exactly that–singing. The riff that precedes his voice is retroactively reassigned by your brain as your expectations are violated: it actually sounds a lot more like something in that vein of heavy metal that came out of the late 60’s and early 70s–Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream–not necessarily stylistically, but with the same bent: distorted and crunchy, sure, but it still sounds like a melody to most people (or, at least, I think it ought–people surprise me in their inability to hear melodies sometimes). Baizley’s voice has a lot less edge on this album, which drains a lot of the “metal” element from the band, much to the chagrin of those hoping for that sound. Instead, we’re left with guitars that are on the lower end of sound and willing to hit on quality solos, but a chorus that is catchy and tuneful. The song itself is still a good, powerful opener that brings Yellow as close as it ever gets to metal.

“March to the Sea” has the clean, harmonized guitars and meandering picking that is signature in most Baroness clean portions, even on prior albums, but shifts to a pounding bass beat and guitars played with a clever set up that makes it sound an awful lot like there’s a set of cellos hiding in there. A close listen betrays the trick–different chords on each guitar, played fast enough to sound more like a bow across strings than those of a guitar being strummed. Baizley and Peter Adams are the ones manning both instruments–or, actually, all, as Baizley covers bass for the studio recording of this album. I’d mention the surprise of Baizley continuing in his more tuneful singing style–but let’s just spoil it: he doesn’t go toward his more yell-esque vocals in basically the entirety of this release. The chorus of “March to the Sea” is one of the best on Yellow, if not the whole release. The words change each time, but manage a personification that is simultaneously obvious, familiar, and nod-inducingly thoughtful: “Valium/You left me all alone/Tell me when I will be whole again” Baizley and Adams call out in unison. There’s a deliberate bass to Baizley’s voice that seems to be a lingering vestige of the stoner/metal origins of the band, but the energy and power of that chorus, which is backed by dancing, restless fingers from Adams that climb up and down (but mostly up) the frets to push the chorus’s sound in the same direction.

The start of “Little Things” almost sounds more like it will turn into an alt rock song, or something in that vein, and the addition of bass doesn’t quite dissuade this notion, even as the clarity and playing style feel peculiar for that sound. The drum beat (courtesy of Allen Blickle), however, is almost dance-like when it comes in, but it’s matched to that clean, mostly single-string guitar lick, and it shifts the two into a different space where each complements the other. It’s as if the drums are trying to lay a simple groove, and the guitars just won’t stand for it, though they won’t actually break the rhythm to do it. It’s actually a great sound, and drives home the feel of Baroness on the entire record.

Acoustic guitars and airy keyboards define not only the introduction, but the entirety of “Twinkler”, which sounds odd and disarming at first, until you realize the missing element is any rhythm section. It is almost jarring when Baizley and Adams’ voices begin. There’s the howl of a desolate wind in the background, and their voices sound almost disembodied without anything to anchor the bottom end but a very slow keyboard (also the responsibility of Baizley). It’s an odd sound, like something from a kind of intimate spiritual ceremony–and the limited set of lyrics almost helps this notion.

The second side of Yellow brings us “Cocainium”, helping to unify the growing second thematic element (drugs, if you aren’t paying attention), alongside water. Curiously, there is some sound at the beginning reminiscent of the keys in Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, which is a phrase John actually sings at one point in the song–though in the midst of the line and in no kind of pointed way, quite believable as even a coincidence. As with the song that ends the side, “Cocainium” gives the impression of drifting calmly down below the surface of the water, the sounds warbling as if they, too, are falling down through water. Blickle’s steady bass and Baizley’s entrance on bass give the song feet, though, as if the one falling turns in the water–not frantic, but no longer allowing the water to have total control. Blickle pounds the song faster and upward–to only an increased tempo for the wavy guitar, and then an ethereal keyboard, and more of Baizley’s voice with the echoing sound of a tunnel surrounding it, both within the listener and outside; the chorus is another quality one: “Save yourself/By the way/Never ride alone”, he sings, the music turned just a bit quieter beneath him, seeming to pause just as he sings “By the way”, as if turning back and interrupting a forward movement. Distortion drops in unexpectedly, as if the one sinking is now perhaps thrashing against the water, but it slowly gives way again, until it builds a second time to a final crunch.

An ominous buzz is all we hear at the beginning of “Back Where I Belong”–and we find ourselves either returned from sinking–perhaps into opiate cloudiness–and confused, vaguely cynical about it: “Tell me now/Who’s in charge here?/I thought help was on the way/It took so many years to get out of here/Now I’m back where I belong”. You can’t be sure if where he belongs is relief, resignation, or some combination of the two. The band is occasionally slapped with the label “progressive”, and this is one of the songs that tells us why, as it morphs eventually into expanding keyboard notions.

Not yet lost from the water, “Sea Lungs” is a description of loss in the face of unexpected entrapment. There’s a kind of renewed strength, “And when my ship comes in/I’ll find a way to breathe again” But it’s followed by a call from the ocean itself to relent and let the water rush in: “Breathe in deep/Let the sea fill your lungs/Better to brace for death/Than die for a promised land”, and we know that it is the ocean itself, not just because it tells us (as it does in the next lines), but because a quaver electronically modifies Baizley’s voice. Still, the final call is to find that way to breathe again, though it’s only after it comes unglued for a moment, the guitar seeming to spring off alone into the deep.

Whether “Eula” is a pretty name or some strange metaphor (related to End-User License Agreements), I’m not sure. But the song is matched by an illustration from Paul Romano: a dilapidated, boarded up house with a cage built into it, lost in the woods. Baizley is off in the distance, vocally, even when there’s force in his voice, the volume is dampened enough to keep him away, weak, and without power to affect change. The first two minutes pass without Blickle’s drums appearing, but when they do, Baizley’s voice gains strength and clarity. “When my house becomes a cage/And the neighbours turn away/It’s my own blood”, he sings, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re still talking about drugs and addiction, and feeling personal responsibility for the effects loss to addiction–easily seen in metaphors of drowning, too–is what we’re seeing and hearing, though we can’t be sure if it’s internal or described internally. The squeezed solos are like ever-increasing, short-wave spikes, hopping up from zero but contorted and controlled, distorted in sound. When the song itself fades away to tremolo-modified distortion and buzzing, unaltered distortion as he sings “Can’t forget the taste of my own tongue”, we’re not sure if this disappearance into addiction is over and lamented for its happening, or if it’s lamented but not yet over–and if we’re to know, our answers may only come from Green

Part Two: Green
Side One: Side Two:
  1. Green Theme
  2. Board Up the House
  3. Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)
  4. Foolsong
  1. Collapse
  2. Psalms Alive
  3. Stretchmarker
  4. The Line Between
  5. If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry

The flip of track number balancing between sides of Green and Yellow appeals to some kind of sensibility I have: there’s a mirror imaging to this. But the music itself? Not quite so much a mirror as an alternate world.

While the drifting, murky, aquatic feel of Yellow might lend itself toward any number of things, the tense whine that begins “Green Theme” seems appropriately dark. And yet, when the guitars and (faint) drums appear, it’s bright and warm, if relaxed and easygoing. And then it explodes: rock guitars, not metal ones, emphatic drums and splash cymbals–like an anthem, stern but cheerful and appreciable. But it’s only a momentary lapse–the guitars slip back into their clean, ringing sound, but they don’t let that anthemic, stomping riff go. It’s a moment like you expect from a solid, slightly-arty (but not full “art-rock”) band–that sort of “epic” feeling, if you’ll pardon the use of a word that now has a memetic colloquial meaning not in line with that which I use it for. The drums then carry the lighter guitars aloft, no longer muting themselves like the guitars–but the buzz and whine taking over: no longer dark, but still quite dissonant.

This doesn’t tell us much about where “Board Up the House” will take us, nor do the mumbled female voices and growing distortion. And when the song actually catches us, it’s not where it seemed to go, but it is where it went, and there’s nothing jarring about it: a riff that feels half-familiar, staying low, but spiking into higher pitches on each repetition, the rhythm pounded out. But we know Baroness by now–this might all just be introduction for something else. And yet, Baizley’s voice comes in, and we know we’re now comfortable in ascribing a sensation to the song in general. The lyrics don’t seem to lend themselves to the continued anthemic sound: “Board up the house/Hide your boys and girls”, but they are what Baizley sings, in a voice that stays on the pleasant side of tune, descending in a spiral. It’s very far from metal, darkness, or anything that even Yellow, let alone the word “metal” might imply.

Harmonics are, for all their sort of peculiarity (they involve fingers on guitar strings without real pressure, barring the “fake” varieties and some other “cheats”) are a common thing, and they are used to introduce “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)”. Swirling, ringing guitars are the order of the song, but they are matched to the slightly modified (it sounds like a strain of autotune mixed with turning the volume up loud enough to distort) vocals Baizley applies–how did this come out of a band known for stoner rock, on a label like Relapse? I don’t honestly know, but by this point, I was more and more glad I’d gotten to sit down and focus on the album.

And we have “Foolsong” to close out the side–we’ve not yet really lost the cheerier sound that started Green, even as we now have a song about “The fool who digs his own grave”, but it seems like a final resignation to even a self-dug grave: “It’s too late to ignore the storm up ahead/It’s too dark to see my way out/Now all I can do about anything wrong/Is dig further down”. The words are dark, they’re resigned to suffering and ends, but they aren’t sung or played against anything that fits with this. It’s not like there is a happiness about this prospective movement, it’s as if it’s an acceptance of poor choices and the ramifications of them.

When “Collapse” opens the final side of the entire set, and it generalizes the tone of “Foolsong”: “We are all soured milk/When we look in the mirror, we collapse/When the time has come/When our finger’s on the trigger, we collapse”. We’re all weak, we’re all corrupted–yet, again, the sound is not cheerful, but it isn’t dark or sad. The guitars quaver and fold in on themselves thanks to an effect, and Baizley’s voice has lost its spark, but it’s still clear and pretty–with the only real hint of sadness present.

It’s a surprise to hear the start of “Psalms Alive”: an electronic drumbeat, soft, taps away like Morse Code behind keys and guitar that echo and reverberate, and then the voice we hear has regained its spark, and even some energy and aggression. It’s a call of impotence on the narrator’s part, as well as admonition of its addressee, for filling their palms “with dirty bombs, instead of hand grenades”. It sounds almost as if the real crunch will return, but it doesn’t: distortion comes back, but it sounds more like a rock band, perhaps a post punk band, but nothing overbearing. Baizley has energy for the first time in many a song, at least, the first to have this kind of energy: passionate, frustrated, maybe even angry. But after a delightful solo, it dissipates, and we have only waves of melody, which lead us to the easy acoustic duet of “Stretchmarker”. Adams and Baizley play off each other, finger picking, and Blickle submits only a bass kick beat and a shaker to back them, not to drive anything, just to keep the sound full. The song is absolutely beautiful, especially as it opens to feature a single acoustic over everything else, but the second no slouch and answering it wonderfully.

“The Line Between” is the final song to contain lyrics. I was left with the distinct impression that it describes the realization of reality after an extended period without clarity. It’s not a sudden truth about the absolute beauty of everything, it’s a realization of the hard lines and tangible truth of reality:

I turned my head up and the sky was empty
I wasn’t looking for paradise
And when I asked for comfort from the land of plenty
I came to realize…
You have taken this for granted
Please don’t take it all away
Feel the light of day. Feel it fade away.
Walk the line between the righteous and the wicked
And tomorrow I’ll be gone…

That final stanza is the chorus, and it’s another magnificent one. The way Baizley sings these is not in the way I’ve heard anyone else sing anything: he’s not a trained expert with amazing range, he’s not a character–it’s something in the way he seems to do everything. The cover art is his as well, which is not unusual, he has also done art and covers for Kylesa, Torche, Black Tusk, Darkest Hour, and even Gillian Welch. His style is incredibly distinct: firm, clear, inked lines, a focus on the female form as a guidepost for the viewer, patterns and water colours, and simultaneously stiff and living art. The inks give it a static, absolute position, yet the way the lines are drawn, the colours are painted, the reality of the proportions–it’s as if it were a perfectly captured moment. And that’s what his vocals are, and that’s what his lyrics are: they are art, and they are poetry, and they are brilliant singing–but they aren’t perfection of any of these, they aren’t the most technically complete, or words you would teach in a poetry class alongside established poets. They just don’t falter despite this: they are refined in their “non-expert” stature. There’s no feeling of awkwardness, there’s no feeling of that amateurishness that can make some things unbearable and other things charming. And yet, it isn’t sterilized in this either; everything he does as art congeals correctly–maybe not perfectly, but as it should for what it is, be it album art, words, or vocal.

And it’s best that I established those while I could, for the closing track, “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry” is instrumental. It is a final return to warmth and brightness, like a comfortably breezy day in an isolated field of tall grass, laying back and sleepily taking it in–conscious, but not hurried even in thought. Is it acceptance of the fallibility of man, self, and the willingness to choose an easy or self-destructive path, finding comfort in this? Or is it just taking a final moment of respite to escape even that, let alone the pressures that might lead to it? Either way–or any other way–it lets Green drift off lazily into neither darkness nor sunset, nor even full sun, beating down.

There are a few final thoughts to leave here. Baroness is one of a handful of bands that I found via status as opening act for a band I saw live, though they are actually one of a more unique pair: Baroness and Kylesa (who have more in common than this, even for me personally) were both to open for Mastodon, the two times I failed to go through with plans to see Mastodon. Both have, curiously, taken over my listening far more than Mastodon. I found myself, though, breezing through Yellow and Green in the past: it was a double album, two discs, nearly two hours of material, and I wanted to hear all of it. I couldn’t easily make that a short car trip to work, or anything else of the kind. This sort of listening is what it demands, though, and is some of what I take out of this experience: the chance to sit and focus on something I might not otherwise have given the chance it deserved.

I don’t like using some words in talking about music, because they are loaded. I’ve already mentioned that at least a few people I know avoid metal quite readily, but this is far from it. Indeed, as I hinted, many were upset at how far from metal it is. There are easy attempts to align it with understood genres–progressive rock, classic rock, hard rock, so on–but it fits in the niche that Baroness themselves carved. Red Album led the way to the increased instrumental and acoustic passages of Blue Record, and it led on into this: a realization of all the aspects of music that clearly interest Baizley, Adams, and Blickle, but without the expected, slavish devotion to aggression and speed that some metal fans demand.

It’s a very pretty record, one I’ve got to say deserves your time, even if you’ve never heard of them, or the word “metal” makes you wary.

  • Next Up: Mike Batt and Friends – Tarot Suite