By Nicholas Darbonne
Baroness – Purple (Abraxan Hymns, 12/18)
The old aphorism that warns against judging books by their covers doesn’t usually apply to music. Authors don’t ultimately have much say regarding the look of the final product; bands usually do. Often the art chosen for an album is meant to reflect themes and moods contained in the music itself. In the case of Baroness, frontman John Dyer Baizley is directly responsible for creating their visuals, which subvert metal tropes and render them majestic. His colorful, detailed album covers serve as an abstract, nonverbal complement to the music. You’re allowed to use your imagination here, but it’s worth noting that two previous members, along with current members Baizley and guitarist Peter Adams, were involved in a near-fatal accident a few years ago that threatened to end the band’s career. As the overall mood seems to reflect that, Purple is one hell of a comeback record. Lyrically, the album deals in metaphor. Baizley speaks lucidly enough to get what he’s feeling across, but vaguely enough to allow for a sense of universal relatability:
The polestar led above my head / Until such time it grew
A deep well of despair I found / The day my dreams came true
For the past few years, Baroness’s output has landed somewhere between sludge and progressive metal, mixing chugging riffs and screamed vocals with sweeping, larger-than-life instrumentation. The lineup’s changed for their latest, post-accident record, but seeing as the band remains primarily Baizley’s project, there’s a sense of continuity running through their work. Their newest record, Purple, is a slight departure from the past: the music and vocals aren’t as straightforwardly aggressive, and the band displays a stronger grasp of melody. Unlike much prog, Purple eschews the pure technicality and detachment that I’ve found characterizes much of the subgenre. This is prog with hooks; it’s prog without distracting time signature changes or much jazz influence. It doesn’t just hold appeal for musicians or those fascinated with technical skills. Though the polished production and vocal stylings at times cause the record to come perilously close to the trappings of made-for-radio Metal Light™, it carries with it more musicality and profundity than the angsty bands of your Hot Topic years. That accessibility ultimately feels like more of a stylistic choice than a bid for mainstream appeal—the music is incredibly emotive, intending to speak to everyone who will listen; it’s held me captive for multiple listens. Incredibly, Purple spans more of the emotional spectrum across its 42 minutes than most bands attempt in their career. This sense of maturity and willingness to indulge in a sentimentality that never feels forced propels Purple to the top of my “best of 2015” list… even though I ignored it until January.
Adrian Younge – Something About April II (Linear Labs, 1/22)
I didn’t set out to write about the last two albums I listened to with naked women on the front, but that’s how it happened. The music was amazing by itself. Even so, I’ve realized I’m subconsciously drawn to albums whose cover art I appreciate. Whatever. I’m a human.
With Baroness, I expected majesty. With Younge, I actually expected something a little less chaste. Seriously, you’d be forgiven for assuming Something About April II was the soundtrack to a 70s porno. The cover and the title don’t help. (For anyone lucky enough to come across a CD or LP copy, check the back cover. Or the gatefold record jacket. You’re welcome.)
That said, the album does exhibit the characteristics of a soundtrack: it’s evocative and moody, and occasionally lacks lyrics. But the vocals are great; they’re handled by a rotating cast of soul vocalists. There are even a few duets. The most well-known singer is possibly Laetitia Sadier, vocalist of Stereolab. You may not recognize Loren Oden, Karolina, or Raphael Saadiq, but they’re all amazing and vital to the sound.
It’s the warmth of the sound that’s immediately noticeable. As far as I can tell, this record was recorded using analog equipment. Though isn’t as readily apparent unless you have the LP, you can still listen for the tape hiss on any format. Note the really punchy drums. Useless fact: the original Something About April has more tape hiss. But they’re both really great records, and I can’t pick a favorite.
The cover states that April II is performed by a group going by the moniker “Venice Dawn,” but a quick perusal of the liner notes reveals that Younge himself is essentially Venice Dawn. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, playing a startling amount of the instruments on this album: organ, piano, bass, electric sitar, vibraphone, flute, drums, and saxophone (alto, tenor, and baritone). He holds credits for composing, recording, and mixing. The record is so consistent because much of it is just Younge’s vision, aside from some lyrical credits going to his vocalists. Guess he’s not a singer.
Not just talented, Adrian Younge’s pretty prolific as well. He produced an album for Ghostface Killah a few years ago, as well as one for the Souls of Mischief. He did the soundtrack for Black Dynamite, a recent throwback to 70s “blaxploitation” cinema. Much of what Younge does is rooted in tradition, so it’s a wonder his work feels as fresh as it does. Yes, the record owes a great debt to now-classic soul music, but it isn’t a paint-by-the-numbers tribute: April II is loaded with psychedelic sounds and production techniques. Aside from soul, Younge’s influences include film scores, funk, psychedelia, and modern hip-hop production. This is, coincidentally, the kind of music beat makers love to sample.
Younge’s music is nothing short of grand: strings provide the flourishes found on records like Issac Hayes’s seminal Hot Buttered Soul. Compare Younge’s “Sea Motet” to Hayes’s rendition of “Walk On By.” Very similar stuff. But it’s fresh, as I hope I’ve made super clear by this point. April II works so well because it’s immediately accessible, but chooses to not fully reveal itself right away. Aside from the first song, the excellent “Sittin’ By The Radio,” the album might take an extra listen or two to fully grasp.
Thankfully, it’s worth all your time. The production is detailed and layered, the psychedelia laid on thick, and the music syrupy and intoxicating. It’s soul music for the winter; it’s the soundtrack to a 70s Italian action movie. The mood it creates is a hard one to describe, but it’s otherworldly in a way that classic soul and modern reinterpretations aren’t. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to say this, but this is essentially what’s happening: April II revels in a darkness uncommon in the music it draws from. From the sinister “Psalms” to the evocative “April Sonata,” to the wintery closer “Hear My Love,” the album conveys visions of struggle within vast otherworlds and underworlds, and even a few glimpses of transcendence. It’s hard to say exactly what it is about April, but she’s pretty enchanting.