Sound — 8
With a gruff stoner metal backbone and a penchant for dual guitar melodies, Baroness came off like a cross between Mastodon and Thin Lizzy when they released their well-lauded 2007 debut, "Red Album." Not only continuing the momentum shortly after, their follow-up album, 2009's "Blue Record" would set the bar for the band even higher - not to mention that the band got to support Metallica on tour soon after, which is the metal equivalent of being blessed by the pope.
At that point, Baroness had become one of the hot new metal bands to pay attention to, but they would still attempt to outdo themselves in their aspiring third double-album, "Yellow & Green," which elaborated more on the band's softer, dreamy side - with more clean singing (as opposed to frontman John Baizley's bellowing vocal style of before) and more spatial, psychedelic-inspired guitar composition. Its different direction, as well as its arguably bloated size, had its share of criticism (making it the least unequivocally praised album in Baroness' catalog thus far), but it still made it onto at least one "best of" albums list in 2012; a steady pattern for all of the band's dependably laudable material.
Now on their fourth album, "Purple," Baroness are set on evening out their energy levels between their heavy, classic characteristics and their lighter characteristics newly discovered in their previous album. The biggest strategy to finding this happy medium is a merging of sonic techniques in their repertoire, not only intertwining the old with the new (like the scratchy strumming techniques that were frequented in "Red Album" handing the baton off to chiming synth arpeggios in "Try to Disappear"), but displaying nice dynamic shifts (like the tradeoff from watery, leslie-effected guitar plucks to a more active pull-off riff in the second verse of "Desperation Burns," and the groovy retro fuzz guitar riff that parlays into a more noisy and jarring riff in the bridge of "The Iron Bell").
But in its full span, "Purple" isn't just focused on intertwining energies, but also guiding a path of energy that ebbs and flows between driving and delicate. Baroness opt to start the album off with a bang (likely an attempt to bring back their old bite that was considerably lacking in "Yellow & Green"), but even though "Morningstar" and "Shock Me" are more menacing that most of the songs in the previous album, they also come off like blatant rehashing of old material - the former sounding like a general triplet-rhythmed cut from "Blue Record," and the latter sounding almost exactly like the "Yellow & Green" song "March Into the Sea," from its stampeding verse riffs to the dual-guitar bridge melody. The band do a better job crafting the mellow sections by comparison - not only showing off skilled but contained performances (like the 7/4 tapping melodies in the chorus of "Kerosene," which sound similar to the 7/4 tapping melody of Thrice's "Between the End and Where We Lie"), but keeping things fresh by making synthesizers a key ingredient (heard in the psychedelic interlude of "Fugue," and the ambient soundscape in the opening of "Chlorine & Wine"), and a penchant for extended, oddly-split measurements and spaced progressions (the chorus of "Shock Me" checks in at 25/4 and 24/4 with a 3 count in between; the measurement of "Chlorine & Wine" flows in 21/4 and 30/4; the chorus of "If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain)" runs in 28/4 and 24/4) serve as a compositional motif that aids the conceptual undertones of the album.
Lyrics — 8
At the start, Baizley was quite laconic as a lyricist for Baroness, and it wasn't until "Yellow & Green" that there was a noticeable advancement in the band's lyrical department. Baizley takes his growing lyrical muscles even further in "Purple," which, though still drawing from the same well of symbolism and imagery, he paves a conceptual pathway that he's never done in previous albums. With the story beginning with two people fighting in a war together (in the war omen exposition of "Morningstar" and "Shock Me"), the main character tries to follow his friend who goes AWOL (in "Try to Disappear"), who soon injures himself in his pursuit (likely on purpose, as the surrendering inflection of "Kerosene" would lead on), and then reunites with his friend as he wakes up in a hospital (in "Chlorine & Wine"), where they slowly continue to run away, lingering between life and death in the final stretch of the album.
More than just telling a story from front to back, Baizley evokes a number of narrative tricks throughout the album. He wields callbacks (like his begging for a twist of fate in "Shock Me" ("Shock me / I needed a surprise") that turns into a self-aware mocking of his wish coming true in "Desperation Burns" ("Hate to say we've had better days / Took me by surprise"), as well as juxtaposition (like the chorus of "Kerosene" ("Drown my love in kerosene / And In the final hour / Acids turn my heart to water"), where the self-immolating symbolism doesn't burn his emotions away, but rather, turns them into a form unscathed by his own ruination), but the most noteworthy device in this concept is the theme of terminality. The main character's perspective towards death oscillates at several different points - starting from his soldier's dread in the beginning of the album (where the line "Can you lay me down / And find someone / To carry the world" in "Morningstar" communicates his unwillingness to do his duty, rather wanting to lounge and not risk his life), to his begrudging oath to kill and bury his friend for ditching the war in "Try to Disappear" ("I will bury your bones inside my garden"), to his recovery and begging for survival after his near-death experience in "Chlorine & Wine" ("Don't lay me down / Under the rocks where I found / My place in the ground"), to his ambivalent but peaceful fatalism with his compatriot in "If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain)" ("If I have to go down / Let me fall to you").
Overall Impression — 9
Taking a calculated risk that yielded some faults, "Yellow & Green" was a necessary growing effort by Baroness via branching out in a different sonic direction. But from the lessons (both good and bad) that were learned in that album, Baroness launch themselves from that stepping stone into a higher level than ever before in "Purple." Along with fortifying, diversifying, and improving the flow of their sound and songwriting, "Purple" achieves even stronger artistic resonance with Baizley getting a firm grip on conceptual lyric writing. Even in spite of the high expectations they've set themselves with their earlier work, in nearly every way, "Purple" shows Baroness topping themselves.