John Baizley doesn’t seem to believe in small undertakings. After the last Baroness record, 2012’s 75-minute double album Yellow and Green, his follow-up with the band had to be filled with outsized ambition — “a monstrous project,” as he calls it. Since it’d be challenging to top the band’s third album in length or relative accessibility, Baizley found new ways to make the latest release, Purple, a massive endeavor.
Baizley’s approach to work, which he describes to me as both “manic” and “obsessive compulsive,” extends far beyond what comes through the headphones. His instantly recognizable artwork graces the cover of every Baroness record, along with those of other bands, such as Kvelertak and Pig Destroyer. When it came time to start thinking about the cover, he knew he wanted Purple’s art to be the most ambitious and detailed piece of his career. “If I tried to calculate the actual man-hours spent on this, I may not ever make another painting,” Baizley writes in an email.
He spent months prepping, sketching, photographing, researching and getting his thoughts on scraps of paper before starting to paint. Baizley sought to create a mighty work that could be split into quadrants, with each retaining meaning when viewed on its own. The finished product keeps good on that promise: it’s an enthralling painting that shows four women surrounded by animals, with each woman augmented by dozens of a certain item: nails, swarming bees, flowers and seed pods. Its level of detail continues to reveal itself even after a ninth or 10th glance — a fact that Baizley refined to a specific point. “I refuse to stop working on something until I feel it’s at the point where any addition would be superfluous, and any subtraction would dilute the meaning,” Baizley writes.
The album art nods to finding beauty and triumph in pain, which is completely of a piece with Purple’s themes and the narrative surrounding it. Soon after the release of Yellow and Green, Baroness very publicly recovered from a devastating bus accident in England. Fortunate to be alive, Baizley and the band had to slowly rebuild in the aftermath.
In the interim, half of Baroness left the band on good terms, which forced Baizley and guitarist Peter Adams to recruit a new rhythm section. They lucked into the current incarnation of Baroness, by way of stellar recommendations from friends: Bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson were the only replacements they considered. In the new lineup, Baizley is careful to counterbalance holding memory of the accident in reverence and looking to the future with open eyes.
“We had life before that moment, and we will continue to have life now that it’s in the past,” Baizley says. “So the tricky thing is being respectful without being negligent, while simultaneously trying to move ourselves forward and create whatever comes next.”
As the first musical reaction to the accident, Baroness was especially cognizant of the context in which Purple would be viewed. “The initial consensus was to write a very high-energy album, to avoid the potential pitfall of writing something too obviously mired in the wake of our accident,” Baizley says. Purple contains some of the most beautiful, melodic and triumphant moments of the band’s career — all without compromising its essential heaviness. Without addressing the accident directly, there are songs explicitly concerned with the jolt of survival and the trying mental costs of physical pain. And, somehow, Baroness further abandoned its sludge metal roots with some of the biggest riffs, hooks and choruses packaged into enormous rock songs. “Shock Me” and “The Iron Bell” deserve to be played in spaces 10 times larger than Baroness will be performing on this current tour.
To realize this propulsive and life-affirming vision, Baroness sought out a producer who’d been at the top of Baizley’s list since the beginning: Dave Fridmann. The super-producer, whom Baizley dubs equal parts “engineering genius” and “mad scientist,” has molded most of the Flaming Lips’ discography and pushed indie acts like Low and Spoon to warped, louder places. His method was to subtly dismantle pristine Baroness recordings. “The first part of that equation is to get a nice clean and technically perfect recording, so that when we destroy the sounds, we can mangle them in any direction we like,” Baizley writes.
He tells me that this is how Baroness has always worked, and how it plans to continue its work. Baizley’s obsessive artistic tendencies are unlikely to slow in the future, and he’s already looking ahead to wider horizons for the band’s next (and likely color-coded) record.
“I’m driven to make an attempt to outdo myself with every subsequent project, and I am excited and terrified to see what happens next.”