"I don't know if anything ever really heals, or if we ever really get set back to a young, healthy version of ourselves," reflects Baroness frontman John Baizley. "Our lives get more complicated, more convoluted. Our anxieties can become deeper and sharper, and the way we deal with them becomes a more critical feature. It's not whether or not something screwy happens to you — it's, 'How do we process it, how do we deal with it?'"
Everyone loves a feel-good story, an inspiring and uplifting tale wherein odds and obstacles are overcome on the way to triumphant success. On that score, the Baroness saga certainly fits the bill: Though physically and psychologically shattered by the horrific 2012 tour bus crash that occurred shortly after the release of Yellow & Green, the prog-sludge quartet's acclaimed third album, Baizley battled back to lead his band to even greater creative heights — first with 2015's Purple (which included the Grammy-nominated single "Shock Me"), and now with the brilliant new Gold & Grey — while weathering lineup shifts that left him the only original Baroness member. And as those albums' lavishly intense cover paintings attest, Baizley's abilities as a visual artist also show no sign of having suffered from the accident; if anything, his work has gotten even stronger and deeper. If Hollywood produced a Baroness/Baizley biopic, this is where the final credits would be rolling, and we'd all be leaving the theater with smiles on our faces and a Baroness song or three on our lips.
But this is real life, where not everything can be wrapped up neatly with a cinematic bow. And while Baizley has indeed shown impressive drive, focus and bravery in forging ahead in the wake of the bus crash, it would be far from correct to say that he has fully recovered from the accident — or, indeed, to assume that he ever will. "It's an interesting topic for me, moving forward," he says. "As used to the effects of the crash as I've gotten, and as much perspective as I have on the accident now, there still is a huge impact on almost every activity for me, and the ebb and flow of the day, the month and the year still relies very much on the effect of that."
Chief among the lasting effects of the crash is the constant, chronic pain that Baizley has endured ever since — most notably in his left arm, which surgeons reconstructed using two titanium plates, a couple of dozen screws, and a foot and a half of wire. "Both plates and the wire come in contact with my skin, so there are things that poke out," he explains. "There are points of contact that I have to keep shielded at all times. I can't knock a corner of that metal into, like, a wall without an immediate, nauseous, drop-to-the-floor-type of pain."
Baizley has to wear compression bands on his arm, both to keep its contents firmly in place, and to protect his ulnar or "funny bone" nerve, which is no longer shielded by the elbow bones that most of us have. "The most painful nerve to hit in your arm is now free-floating, wriggling on the outside of my arm," he says. "So there's a nerve pain I'm dealing with, there's a mechanical pain, there's a muscular pain, there's an internal pain. When it's cold, I feel it in the middle of my bones, because those plates freeze. Same thing when it's hot. So climate's a thing. Temperature's a thing. Contact is a thing. Lack of contact is a thing. I can't use it all the time, because then it gets really sore, but if I don't use it enough, it gets really stiff …"
As anyone who deals with chronic, debilitating physical pain knows, the psychological fallout from it can be brutal. Baizley acknowledges that, in order to keep himself from going to some pretty dark places in his head, he's had to walk the fine line of acknowledging and accepting his predicament without dwelling too much upon it. "The effects are fairly deep and definitely impossible to ignore, but also very dangerous to focus on," he says. "I really have had to learn balance over the course of the past six or seven years, because it seems like to repress the reality of my situation is as dangerous as focusing on it all the time …
"Managing that is difficult," he continues. "However, playing songs that are about something important to me, and performing those songs every night, has allowed me to gain some perspective on things, and to strike that balance a little more firmly. Those are the two hours a night where I don't feel it. I'm completely oblivious to how difficult, and how painful, the effects of that accident are when I'm onstage playing, or when we're writing, or when I'm doing artwork. Those are the times when I'm able to block it. So it seems like the problem has a built-in solution — and that built-in solution just happens to be exactly what I want it to be. That's kind of poetic to me. It's a very elegant solution to a very painful reality."
There have been, Baizley admits, times when he seriously considered calling it quits — both in the immediate aftermath of the accident, and following the subsequent exits of drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni (who left Baroness seven months after the crash) and guitarist Pete Adams, who bowed out in 2017. "But as these things happened," he says, "I came face-to-face with what I could be missing. I started to think about what my life would be like without the band, without my art, without the place where my creativity flourishes. And it wasn't a better place. It was a much darker, much more melancholic place. I realized that quitting was never an option — and the harder we got hit, the more I felt obligated to continue. And not to just get back to where we were before the accident, but to come back stronger, and come back bigger and better."
Happily, Baizley has found some enormously capable compatriots to help him perpetuate Baroness' mission. Drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist Nick Jost joined the band in time to bolster the defiant roar of Purple; and in the summer of 2017, Gina Gleason replaced Adams on guitar. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Gleason had paid her dues as a guitarist for years, playing in various local punk and thrash bands while surviving by waiting tables and working at Guitar Center. Before joining Baroness, her musical adventures included a 2009 touring stint with Dethklok, handling lead guitar duties in the all-female Metallica and King Diamond/Mercyful Fate cover bands Misstallica and Queen Diamond, and a major performing role in a Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas.
The show, Michael Jackson ONE, opened in the spring of 2013 at Mandalay Bay, and featured Gleason as "The Muse," a role which required her to shred live guitar leads over hits like "Beat It" while acrobatically traversing the stage in precariously tall platform boots. "I had a guitar that had a flame-thrower on the end of it," she laughs. "I'd run around playing these solos and shooting fire, and I'd run up and down these crazy stage props. It was a cool experience, but it was pretty grueling — it was like 484 shows a year! But it was definitely way different from playing in bands, and it was interesting to experience the kind of job I didn't know a musician could have."
Though it was nice to actually receive a regular paycheck for playing music, Gleason admits that performing in a Vegas show began to make her feel stagnant and frustrated. "The reality of that kind of musical endeavor is that it's a solid thing," she explains, "but it's also impossible to start or develop anything else, or go on tour, because of how demanding the show schedule is."
The seeds for Gleason's next musical chapter were planted when someone turned her on to Yellow & Green. "The first Baroness song I heard was the 'Green Theme,' and I was like, 'Whaaaaat?!'" Gleason laughs. "I remember feeling really overwhelmed, like, 'This band has so many layers!' Just the guitar parts alone — you can tell how stacked the tones are, and how much attention to detail went into the songs. My first impression was like, 'Wow, I'm overwhelmed, but I love it!'"
Sometime later, Gleason placed an online order for a boutique fuzz pedal manufactured by Philly Fuzz, a small guitar effects company co-founded by Baizley. "I sent a message to Steve [Strohm], the guy who makes the pedals, saying, 'Hey, I can come by and pick this up, because I'm going to be in Philly visiting my family soon, so you don't have to ship it all the way out to Vegas.' And he was like, 'Yeah, that's cool.' And then I got this message from John that was like, 'Hey, I saw that you ordered this pedal. Maybe we should jam sometime when you're in town?' And I was like, 'Oh my god, the dude from Baroness is sending me a message? What the hell?' I was really excited!"
Baizley, who had moved to Philadelphia with his wife and daughter in 2011, recognized a kindred spirit in Gleason's Instagram clips — here was someone as deeply devoted to the guitar, and as geeked out about effects pedals, as he was. And once Gleason finally took him up on his invitation, the two musicians instantly clicked.
"The first day I met John, we just sat in his basement for probably eight hours, and just tried different fuzz pedals, A-B-ing them, just being ridiculously nerdy and annoying," Gleason laughs. "We were playing all these thrash riffs, and just having a great time. So any time I would make it back to Philly, I would always hit up John to jam."
"I noticed that there was an alarming amount of similarity between the way she approached her instrument and the way that I did," Baizley recalls. "Although the short-form version is that she's a much more fluid and accomplished player than I am!"
During one of Gleason's visits, Baizley broke the news to her about Adams' impending departure. "John was like, 'I think Pete's wanting to leave the band.' And I was like, 'Noooo!!!' because I was such a big Baroness fan," she recalls. "And then he was like, 'But I was thinking … maybe you could try, and we could see if it would work out.' And I was like, 'Holy shit!'"
After several months of touring with Gleason in the fold, Baizley felt that the band was ready to begin work on the follow-up to Purple — though the album would differ considerably in tone, feel and methodology than its predecessor. "Early in the Purple writing, the tenor of the record at that point was extremely fresh for me, and I was processing it in real time as I was writing," Baizley explains. "I wrote all these sad-ass songs, but Sebastian and Nick were like, 'Dude, we just joined the band — we can't be seen as the guys who made Baroness go soft and melancholic!' So we made the decision to keep it 'up' the whole time. But because Purple was such an efficient, focused and driven record, I felt we needed to spread our wings a little more on this one."
Though still audibly the work of Baroness, Gold & Grey is easily the band's trippiest, most adventurous, and most unusual record to date. The double-length album features 17 songs, many of which — unusual for Baizley, who in the past has preferred to painstakingly demo every new song — were actually cooked up in the studio. One track, "Emmett-Radiating Light," even features the sounds of crickets chirping along with Baizley and Gleason as they play acoustic guitars together on producer Dave Fridmann's porch.
"For me, I think the most intimidating moment was the realization that this band was ready to make a departure from the past," says Gleason. "Coming in, I was like, 'Aw yeah, guitar band!' And then I quickly realized I needed to expand the way I was thinking about songwriting and developing parts, because this band was ready for something new. For a long time, everything I was doing [on the record] was tinged with, 'As a Baroness fan, would I like this?' And that took a long time to let go of, but I think it's cool that we just challenged ourselves and our sensibilities. For me, I was able to set aside my go-to musical tendencies and just try something different, and just go, 'Fuck it — let's not put any boundaries on this!'"
This spring, during the run-up to Gold & Grey's release, Baizley tweeted that the album would be the "final piece in our chromatically-themed records," a series that began with 2007's Red Album and 2009's Blue Record. While some panicked Baroness fans misinterpreted the statement as a farewell announcement, Baizley explains that he merely sees Gold & Grey as the end of one Baroness era, and the beginning of a fruitful new one with Gleason, Jost and Thomson.
"The idea, initially, was just to do the traditional color wheel, which is six colors. Orange is the final one on the wheel, so calling it Gold & Grey is our way of circumventing calling our album Orange — that's just not a cool title, so this is as close as we get to it," he laughs. "I've listened to all five [Baroness albums] in a row, and this record feels like it's part of that. And I don't know that the next one won't, but it also feels like 12 years might be long enough chasing one idea."
If Gold & Grey marks the final chapter of this particular phase of Baroness, it does so in an appropriately triumphant fashion. But while the album's songs have obviously been informed by Baizley's struggles, he is understandably leery about Baroness being seen as "that bus accident band," or as an entity that exists solely to keep his pain and his demons at bay.
"Yeah, the album is a bit personal to me," he says. "But I am hesitant to talk about it too much, because I don't want to put it on everyone else in Baroness. Every record we put out is about the experiences that we have during the period in which we're writing it. I don't have to go too far back into my past to draw from things. But in the processing of experience, I try to do something positive and creative and constructive with it. By that measure, I can really take the bleakest, darkest days of mine and turn them into songs …
"Gina, Sebastian and Nick weren't involved in that accident, so I would never want the band to become distinctly about that, because they don't share that experience with me," he continues. "So in some ways, I have to try and compartmentalize the effects [of the accident], but at the same time, I feel like we have an opportunity here, and I have a place where I can show our audience that you can deal with a tragedy or a misfortune at this level — and how you can take adversity and strengthen yourself through it. That's something people talk about a lot, but now I have proof. So now I have confidence in saying that, and not sounding like a high school gym coach, or something." He laughs.
"There were so many variables in that accident that could have completely taken me out of the game," Baizley concludes. "But after the dust settled, I realized that I did have the facility to use my left hand, so I still could play guitar. And I still did have a voice, and I still did have the motivation to create things, to make images, to make paintings, to write music, to write lyrics … and it just made all of those things more dear to me, and closer to my heart."