How BARONESS faced nightmares and communed with the dead to find a new "open road" | Revolver

How BARONESS faced nightmares and communed with the dead to find a new "open road"

The story behind prog-sludge veterans' latest opus 'Stone'
Baroness 2023 cover main image 1600x900

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John Baizley's subconscious is a watery abyss, and each night it threatens to pull him under.

For years, the Baroness singer-guitarist has been plagued by nightmares about drowning in "deeply red water" under a "deeply red sun" — a suffocating experience that he's recently brought to the surface on "Anodyne," a sludge-thick rocker from his group's bold new album STONE.

In it, Baizley sings of being held underwater; before he and co-guitarist Gina Gleason harmonize an unsettling line, "In my dreams, we're gonna fall forever."

"I would be in this canoe in the middle of a lake … following [Baroness drummer] Sebastian [Thomson]," Baizley tells Revolver of one recurring dream.

"My boat would go under the water, and I would drown for two or three hours. That's not a pleasant dream to have, but I was having it so frequently that I was like, Well, something is clearly forcing me to have this reoccurring experience."

Baroness John Baizley portrait 2023
John Baizley

Baizley has theories around the meanings of these dreams, but he's keeping them close to the chest. That said, an outsider could speculate they're perhaps an outgrowth of the terrifying 2012 bus crash Baroness experienced during a European tour, where their vehicle fell off a viaduct.

Baizley, who founded Baroness in 2003, is the only member from this era still in the band, and he still contends with chronic pain from breaking his left arm and left leg more than a decade ago.

In a more positive light, that he is following Thomson's lead in the dream could speak to the fact that Baizley's bond with his bandmates is sturdier than ever before.

"Stone is something you think of as strong as hell," Gleason says when asked about the album title, over a separate phone call with Revolver. "Hopefully that's a good metaphor for us moving forward: strong as hell; not going anywhere."

Sure enough, Baroness have embodied artistic adventurousness and resilience these past 20 years. That has earned them consistent critical praise, a fiercely loyal fanbase, a Grammy nomination and endorsements from heroes including Metallica and Deftones.

As Baroness broach their third decade of activity, they've likewise become a model for longevity and uncompromising creativity to a new class of heavy bands. Baroness will be paying it forward during this fall's Sweet Oblivion Tour, on which they'll be showcasing a slew of genre-pushing upstarts as openers: Jesus Piece, Portrayal of Guilt, Soul Glo, Escuela Grind and more.

STONE likewise marks Baroness' next daring chapter of reinvention.Thematically, their sixth full-length is a cathartic testament to both fearless self-reflection and the importance of strengthening bonds.

Sonically, the album is a nexus point of hammer-down heavy metal, progressive weirdness, hickory-scented Americana, and a newfound improvisational spirit that demonstrates the band's willingness to venture far off familiar pathways. For Baizley and Co., who you travel with along the way makes all the difference.

Baroness Gina Gleason portrait 2023
Gina Gleason

It's also worth noting that STONE marks the first point in the band's history where they have recorded back-to-back albums with the same lineup — and clearly, something's clicking with this current iteration (which Baizley counts as Baroness' seventh).

Thomson and bassist Nick Jost first jumped onboard for 2015's Purple. Gleason was the last to join, in 2017, and six years on from first jamming in Baizley's basement to test out a guitar pedal, Gleason and the Baroness leader are fairly inseparable.

Both musicians currently live in Philadelphia (Baroness' rhythm section are stationed in Brooklyn, New York) and they're regularly running into each other at the gym, walking their dogs together, checking out basement shows and sharing meals in Baizley's high-ceilinged dining room; the same place where Gleason tracked the feverish, Randy Rhoads-inspired guitar solo for STONE's "Last Word" (which is the first entirely improvised lead in the band's discography).

That close-knit connection was tested during the start of the pandemic. When the tour cycle behind 2019's Gold & Grey was put on hold at the outset of lockdowns, the members of Baroness stayed distanced and transitioned to woodshedding song ideas via a communal Dropbox folder.

They'd hold weekly Zoom meetings to plot their next steps. Baizley kept returning to the idea of the band making their "cabin-in-the-woods record." Once it was safe to meet up, they were set on writing, rehearsing and recording on the outskirts of society.

Eventually, they settled for an Airbnb in Barryville, New York, a quaint hamlet on the boarder of Pennsylvania. Beyond a general store, and a motel where they tried to get tacos, there wasn't much to see or do other than crush out a metal record. It was perfect, not to mention practical.

"The idea of being in the woods is romantic, but there's an efficiency thing to it too," Gleason says, adding of cranking it up in the sticks, "We can't be botherin' neighbors!"

Baroness Nick Jost portrait 2023
Nick Jost

As they hunkered down to record in their temporary rural abode, Thomson set up his drums in front of a stone fireplace. The ensuing 13-hour marathon jams were an outgrowth of the Gold & Grey tour, on which the band loosened up and extended live versions well past their recorded counterparts.

The largely improvised "Choir" (which connects full-bore rocker "Beneath the Rose" with the beautiful organ-and-vocal lamentation "The Dirge") is Baroness at their most open-ended: Its lean guitar ambiance spirals around the kind of hypnotic, motoric groove Thomson also locks in with as part of Trans Am, the long-running post-rock outfit he co-founded in the early Nineties.

Baizley's stream-of-conscious, spoken-word sermonizing on "Choir" — which hovers between a Southern yowl and a crypt keeper's croak — signals another turning point for the project, though his words were actually less free-flowing in Barryville than the music.

He explains that writer's block gripped him hard at the time. To be fair, he was also performing and engineering the sessions, so his plate was pretty full. Still, the recordings sat without vocals for months.

Back at home in Philadelphia, Baizley cleared his mental cobwebs by walking out of his neighborhood and into nearby Laurel Hill Cemetery. It's there that the musician gained clarity, and ultimately a thematic anchor for STONE.

"It's one of these gorgeous, full cemeteries filled with mausoleums," he explains of the setting. "It's a beautiful place to take a walk [and] receive some wisdom from the peace and quiet of your surroundings."

The statues Baizley saw in Laurel Hill became muses, on many fronts. While Baroness' in-house painter-illustrator previously sought out live models to pose for the ornate scenes of earlier album covers, this time he was struck by the inanimate, inflexible beauty of those stone figures. He drew three for STONE's cover.

More broadly, the monuments reminded him of the permanence of death, as well as the legacy of family. Oddly enough, one day Baizley and his wife realized that a direct, but previously unknown, relative laid in Laurel Hill.

"She saw a mausoleum that had 'Baizley' on it. It's a fairly uncommon name, so we looked into it and it's a great-great-great-to-whatever-power grandfather [of mine]," he explains, before sadly adding of a more recent connection to the grounds:

"Unfortunately in the interim between the past records, I've lost a few friends. [One of them] had a ceremony in that same cemetery."

Baroness Sebastian Thomson 2023 portrait
Sebastian Thomson

Baizley's careful not to spell out everything for his listeners, but death and darkness are indelibly etched in STONE. The record draws out scenes of drownings, burials and the foreboding feeling that time is running out.

That said, the album contrasts this with some of Baroness' most uplifting metal melodies yet. Death also inadvertently birthed "The Dirge," with Gleason explaining that the passing of a family member led to Baroness' acquisition of a slightly decrepit, yet still functional, vintage organ.

She and Baizley picked up the instrument on their way back from Barryville, and drug it into the latter's basement to work out a tender melody and vocals. Though Baizley's vocal cords were mostly dormant in Barryville, he and his co-vocalist blossomed in the basement.

"I feel like John and I became closer friends this time around, because it was an even more intense vocal period," Gleason recalls of laying down harmonies at her bandmate's home.

"You're completely vulnerable: 'I'm just going to sing in this microphone, and you're going to hear me say the most wack ideas you've ever heard … to see if anything stands out.'"

Though STONE features some hallmarks of Baroness' sound — namely colossal riff-play and soaring, anthemic vocals — it's likewise a huge step forward for the group. The improv spirit is a big part of that, but aesthetically the band have also moved beyond the color-coded concept that guided everything between 2007's Red Album and 2019's Gold & Grey.

In retrospect, Baizley muses that Baroness' color studies were somewhat of a gimmick, but nevertheless explains it was daunting to leave that connective aesthetic behind.

"I personally went back and forth about a million times … on whether or not we would go back on what we said and continue with some kind of chromatic titling thing," Baizley admits, before clarifying that he's now confident in his decision and excited about where Baroness could be headed next.

While nothing's set in stone, he's conceptualizing another multi-album arc that could feature a fully improvised outing or an all-acoustic venture.

"A wide-open road," is how Baizley describes the path they paved with STONE. "We really felt like we clearly and definitively stepped over that line; this is a new era for the band."

Baroness table 2023 uncropped

Complexity has marked much of Baroness' career. Of course, there's the densely crafted soundscapes and meter-shifting prog-pivots of their music. Behind the scenes, it's been an emotional minefield of near-death experiences and interpersonal shake-ups.

Hell, this also applies to the wondrously elaborate linework Baizley brings to each album cover. While he dubs STONE the band's "most minimalist record," it's nevertheless layered with intricate ideas and subtext.

"I'm good at complicating my life, and the lives of those around me," he says. "I have a real knack for it."

As a fitting counterpoint to that sentiment, STONE begins with a few lithe acoustic strums between Baizley and Gleason, their voices harmonizing to ponder the prospect of leading "a simple life."

It's a serene-enough reflection — but is that dream even possible when you're part of a hardworking, hard-traveling metal band?

"I'm questioning what that means, and if it's something that I want," Baizley offers. "Even though I, at times, yearn for that simple life, I don't think I've found it yet. Life still feels very complicated and chaotic, turbulent and busy … I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way."