Launching their U.S. tour Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., Savannah, GA, quartet Baroness wasted little time in showing off the grand, intricate style of Blue Record, one of 2009's most acclaimed metal albums.
Leading off with instrumental album opener "Bullhead's Psalm," the band blended detailed guitar with delicate feedback before yielding to the galloping rhythms and yowling vocals of "The Sweetest Curse." The quartet executed similar transitions several more times during an imposing 80-minute set -- although not so often as on the new album.
Despite the band's undeniable sonic grandeur, the visual presentation onstage at the 300-capacity Rock'n'Roll Hotel was more punk than prog. The only stage decoration was a reproduction of Blue Record's cover (hand drawn by singer-guitarist John Baizley) that was largely hidden by Allen Blickle's drum kit. The bushy-bearded, cropped-haired Baizley didn't say a word until the set's end, and tank-topped new guitarist Peter Adams (who replaced Brian Blickle before sessions for Blue Record) let his ornate arm tattoos do the talking.
Baroness' music was equally succinct, despite its near-symphonic counterpoint and dynamics, and baroque-inspired guitar intros. Some passages suggested Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore" (and its many knockoffs), but overall the group's sound was closer to hardcore icons Helmet: Baizley and Adams's guitars parried and merged in defiance of arena rock's lead guitar/rhyth guitar hierarchy. While Baizley's throaty vocals were featured, Adams sang some of the lines; occasionally, pig-tailed bassist Summer Welch joined the other two to underscore a phrase.
Baroness distills metal's recent tendencies. Its music resembles that of Explosions in the Sky (who've also worked with Blue Record producer John Congleton) or Pelican, but is more direct and concise. Baizley's lyrics draw on Biblical language and themes -- and also German mystic novelist Herman Hesse -- but are mostly too cryptic to be embarrassing. One of the show's catchier refrains, from "A Horse Called Golgotha," went, "The stained horizon / ablaze with revolvers / stampedes and bridles." Doesn't really work in print, but it's much better sung in unison atop fast, thread-the-needle guitar lines.
Bobbing their heads along with the fans, the four musicians rarely ventured a rock-star pose. (Baizley did hop on a monitor, but just for a second.) Yet Baroness's music was so overwhelming that when the band left the stage, the crowd at first accepted the departure in silence. Gradually, applause began and then swelled, and was eventually rewarded by encore of "Rise," from the quartet's debut EP.
Rise is one thing Baroness can definitely do, but the song was just as powerful as it sank, descending to a series of slow, sharp guitar pulses. Whether it's with classical guitar or punky noise, Baroness knows how to frame its loftiest crescendos with simple flourishes.