The Big Review: Download Festival 2022
Download Festival is back at full-scale for the first time since 2019! Here’s all the action from Donington Park…
Three and a half years since they re-established themselves at the forefront of contemporary metal with 2015’s Purple, Baroness are readying their return with the labyrinthine next step on their musical odyssey. A 17-song melodic puzzle-box of an LP – melodies and harmonic ideas borrowed, repurposed and reinterpreted across three sides of vinyl – it’s a fascinating, wilfully unwieldy listen. Lyrics are full of sonic Easter eggs. Unorthodox prog is hidden inside the most accessible songs. Tracks emerge from swirling chaos and dense layers of sound. With that in mind, we sat down with frontman John Dyer Baizley to chart a passage through the maelstrom.
“There are fragments of sound that bleed in and out from one song to the next, over the course of the record there are definitely themes that recur,” the singer and guitarist explains, “but not in a concept-album kind of way. Over the years I’ve come to regard it more and more intimately, and as more and more fundamentally linked to my everyday life to the point where the lines are so blurred that I don’t even think there are any there anymore between who I am as a visual artist and musician and who I am as a human being. I intended this album to be a kaleidoscopic representation of that. I am talking about my life-experience since Purple, which is why you get those re-emergent themes and literal repetitive lines. We went so overboard with that, it would be dizzying for me to even try to explain. There’s always a reason, but it can be hard for me to keep track of what it is!”
Well, we’ll do our best…
“The first song on the album was actually the last song written during writing sessions. We held off for a very long time in writing anything specifically heavy, but this was the track where we just tuned our guitars down and went for it. We put a bunch of different things into a blender musically, then tried to tie it all together lyrically and vocally. A lot of the song is in [unusual time signatures]. There’s a Thin Lizzy style guitar solo in there, followed by the weirdest thrash bridge that I’ve ever heard. The end of the song couldn’t be called soul or r'n'b by a long shot, but it’s as close to it as we’ll probably ever go. We tuned our bottom string down as low as it would go so that it got this one deep heavy note. And it’s got a pop chorus. Why? I don’t even know! I was shocked that the song worked to the extent that it sounds as though we meant to write it that way. Sure, the music felt good enough to be an instrumental, but it turned out to be a real song. It’s a real mystery!”
“Track two is like Massive Attack meets TLC’s Waterfalls as played by John Lennon – with fairly dark lyrics. Most of that tracking was done in one go. It’s essentially a looped drum beat right up to the final chorus, just verse-chorus-verse-chorus. There are very few overdubs because the whole thing was almost improvised. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to [recreate] the guitar-line in there because I don’t really know what it is. It’s a new type of song for us, and we’ve been playing it at soundchecks a lot. We’re very proud of it.”
“This was the second song we released, and it’s the song that I’m most excited to hear people’s reactions on. It’s an awesome song with a really, really weird guitar solo. It starts off sounding like The Police on the worst day of their lives, or like some screwy Duran Duran thing, then by the second chorus you’ve got a blastbeat, and by the end of the song you’ve got nothing but noise. I can’t even tell if that was synthesisers, guitars or whatever else. We just made a racket and sang our hearts out!”
“This is one of the interstitial tracks on the record. It sounds like [American composer] Steve Reich to me. It’s a couple of different piano pieces that Nick (Jost, bass) wrote, then laid them on top of each other, then mixed them in such a way that they only rarely actually sound like pianos.”
“This was the first song that we wrote for the record. We had it mostly written before Gina (Gleason, guitar) even joined the band. It kinda reminds me of something almost Fugazi-esque in a way. The intro is one of my favourite parts of the album. I’m a massive fan of [singer-songwriter] Gillian Welch, and I would look at pictures of how she and her partner Dave Rollins would record their songs, sitting looking at each other and singing their song. That’s why they’re so synchronised and so harmonious. Gina and I worked hard to develop that kind of bond: just the two of us with acoustic guitars, looking at one another. Then the song gets loud and goes all sorts of weird places. At the end of the song, I made a thing I called ‘Amp-Henge’, which was just about 20 different loud amplifiers assembled in a circle pointing towards this central axis-point. I set up rigs for everybody and the four of us each put on an animal mask – I was a panda, someone was a shark, someone was a horse and someone was a dinosaur – them we all stood in the middle, switched on a disco ball and all played this one chord for about ten minutes. We don’t use all of it, but the end of the track this part of that sound. [As an Easter-egg] I’ll say there is one extremely weird element in that song. I’m not going to tell you what it is. But it is consistently in there: something rhythmic. Maybe people will be able to figure out what it is.”
“Tourniquet bleeds right into Anchor’s Lament – a sort of continuation. It’s a piano-piece that Nick wrote that blends in. My friend Katie Jones – a wonderful violin/viola player with whom I play a different kind of music – had written and co-ordinated a whole string section that was supposed to go on Tourniquet but didn’t quite work once we had written the whole song. It sounded great, but not necessary on that track. We dropped the strings in here and they just made perfect sense. Then I sang the chorus to the next song on the record over the top. That marks the end of Side A.”
“This song was the first opportunity that Sebastien (Thomson, drummer) had to re-access his identity as a drummer with [Maryland post-rock legends] Trans Am. It’s a very Trans Am beat: really busy. Nick is playing a pounding bassline, too. We wrote this song full of all this weird stuff. The bridge-section is in like 19 or 20 beats. We paid zero attention to anything melodic, we just played random chords on the rhythm and layered them until they sounded amazing. Then towards the end of the song I came up with a chorus that was about as big, epic and sensible a chorus as it’s possible for us to write surrounded by this completely psychotic song. It’s just me screaming at a wall half the time!”
“Gina and I wrote this song during one of our recording sessions with [producer] Dave Fridmann. It was just she and I there, after Sebastien and Nick had done all of their parts. We had a sort of different version of the song, but I think Gina was quite cautious about that different presentation. She was singing the lead initially, and something about it wasn’t quite synching. We decided to try swapping parts – me singing the main melody and her singing the harmony – and all of a sudden it just got bigger and louder and the depth just increased. I play a piano on it, just trying to do a very simple bassline. Gina and I played all these what we consider ‘string parts’ or ‘horn parts’, but with our mouths vocally. We just really quickly recorded the whole thing. The next day, Dave came into the studio and we told him it was important that the vocal was intimate and exposed, but he could do what he wanted to it. He just took the guitars out, and it was awesome. It became this very exposed vocal performance. It felt really like the kind of risk that we wanted to include on the record. It didn’t exist on the record yet. It didn’t really exist in our back-catalogue. I was really psyched on that sound!”
“I was listening to the most recent [Minnesota indie-rockers] Low album a lot during recording of this. If anything, that was the one real outside inspiration that I had on this record. It was just so bizarre. At one point in recording this song, Dave looked up at me and told me that this just felt like a rock version of that Low record, as if we were just working on similar ideals. I had recorded all this spoken stuff and I was set on just mixing and manipulating it into obscurity, just to make a track out of it. Gina had written the acoustic guitar part that plays for a couple of seconds in the song in my bathroom during a thunderstorm, which has a cool vibe to it. Then we turned this $30 nylon-stringed acoustic guitar we had bought on tour in Europe on the tour prior to recording into a kick-drum. That huge bass-drop sound is just Gina hitting that guitar with a drumstick wrapped in a t-shirt. I filtered out everything but the bass notes in it and ran it through a bunch of guitar pedals to make it sound crazy. It’s actually three other songs [combined], but it sounds nothing like them.”
“This song feels like another huge achievement for the band. We’ve always talked about how Purple didn’t have much of an acoustic guitar presence, and this [picks up that slack]. Nick had written this acoustic guitar part that I couldn’t play, so he and Gina played acoustic while I just play the piano and the bells and sing. The piano piece I’d written was like a different song, but I figured out how to buff them together in a way that fades out of one and into the other, then back again. It’s really beautiful. Again, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what type of song it is, but it was fun to sing and interesting to find out that the range of my voice could go much lower than I thought it could. And that background noise? Gina and I were at Dave’s cabin in the woods at about 2 or 3 in the morning, after a long day of recording, in a kinda cranky mood. I stepped outside on the porch and heard these beautiful crickets in the night. We decided to just capture [her part] in one take with all that external noise live around us. She nailed it the first time. That was a cool recording experience!”
“It’s very rare that I’ve ever felt a genuine sense of pride in songwriting on the level that I did with this song. We never knew what that was going to turn into. We’d written all the music first and had to figure out a way to make the lyrics work with it. It took a while to get the right performance; we had that beginning thing which was so beautiful with so much harmony and so many beautiful things going on. My daughter even added guest vocals: she comes in on the second line. It’s the whole chord-progression the whole time, it just gets twisted up a little. Then the song stops. The second half is just very simple. It was very fun to record, though very difficult to play. I’m very proud of that song. Then that’s the end of Side B!”
“Side C starts with another [transitional] track. It’s actually another song on the record re-imagined. Gina was playing the Jazzmaster, which has this kind of weird whammy-bar thing on it. I was just moving the whammy-bar, screwing up what she was playing the whole time, just bending it down and bringing it up and making it sound almost out-of-tune.”
“Crooked Mile bleeds into the next song on the record with lyrics. Side B has kind of this long, extended down period, then this is perhaps the most normal-sounding song on the record. Still, it took a couple of weird turns. There’s this huge bridge-section that we improvised where I ditched all the guitars and there was just a couple of bass notes. The drumming is so wild because Dave told Seb to just play drum-fills along with the structure of the song, because we didn’t know where the vocals were going to go yet. When you listen to the guitar solo on there, bear in mind that I had to retro-fit it over a section with just a couple of bass notes. That was really hard to do, but it was fun because it was written in a normal way with a normal chord-progression that sort of grew into this big, sad, epic love song. I wanted to write something directly, straight from the heart, and this was it.”
“Gina and I were tracking guitars somewhere else, which left Nick and Sebastian – probably bored – to write this massive bass and drum thing. And we just went crazy on it. It felt like we were in a cult or something: singing all this weird stuff, playing slide-guitar with an E Bow, hitting giant bells and gongs. It’s just a trip. We played this a lot on our last tour. It’s just a fun song to groove on. Also, due to its structure, I thought it was a great lead-in to Borderlines, because it’s at the point in the record where you need to come back to Earth for a second.”
“Borderlines was the second song that we wrote for the record. It was like, once we’d written that song and there are like three guitar solos on there I thought we didn’t really have too much guitar-ground to cover. It’s got a big chorus. It’s got cool verses. I had a blast writing and performing that song. It’s also got some of the most inventive drumming I’ve seen Seb do. It’s got a bass-hook in it, too. We really wanted to showcase what Nick and Sebastien are capable of as instrumentalists, so Gina and I are really just playing to them the entire time. There’s this jam thing that happened at the end that was 100% improvised where the drums turn around and the beat flips. We didn’t intend on any of it, but we just left it in!”
“At some point, on a record as serious as this one, you just need to have fun. A lot of times in rehearsal through the years we’ve just set up a couple of synthesisers and just jammed out on them with effects, just going nuts. I thought it’d be fun to push people’s patience at the end of the record with two minutes of us just goofing around and taking the mood somewhere unique so that when our final track happens [it delivers the full impact].”
“The final song on the album started out as a jam, 100% improvised, every bit of it: an improv jam, with very little tying it to earth. Then Gina and I had to figure out how to make it into a song. After Cold-Blooded Angels, it’s probably the second-hardest song I’ve ever written. There’s a repetitive bassline. There’s a repetitive drum groove. On top of that, we figured out a way to make it into the song that’s by far the harshest way that we could ever end a record. I absolutely love it!”
Baroness' new album Gold & Grey is out June 14 via Abraxan Hymns.
Download Festival is back at full-scale for the first time since 2019! Here’s all the action from Donington Park…
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