It's a weakness we all have. As much as we profess to not care about anyone else's opinion, we look, we read, we dabble all around the darkest corners of the interest to see who thinks what about what. It's part of what makes the end of the calendar year all the more exciting. We have to know what Website X thought were the best records of the year. But what about Website Y? Or Website Z? Frankly, we look at all of the lists, as tiring and frustrating as it may be, because we want to know if others, by and large, agree with our own self-righteous opinions. And so we read them all.
What makes metal, specifically, so interesting is how different those lists can be. Because of its many sub-genres and underground culture, no two lists are the same, with very few common components to be found. You might find ten bands you've never heard of, or maybe a mix of half and half. This year was no different. Except, of course, for Baroness.
Despite being pinned down to the end of the year - December 18th, to be exact - few albums made as big a splash as Purple. And, by our estimation, few heavy albums garnered as much attention and strong opinions. As an album, Purple is special. It is, at the same time, accessible and intimate. While it attracted many of those unfamiliar with the band, fans and newcomers alike got to experience an album that felt like it was written for them. One quick glance through the Baroness social media web and you'll find countless messages expressing exactly that; feelings of camaraderie, a common ground of emotions, and, even more, the notion that it spoke to their listeners on an personal level.
The songs are as dynamic and impactful as anything the band has written to this point. In the scope of a career that has found more praise than criticism, that alone speaks volumes. Taken as separate pieces, they are all intoxicating in their own way. Whether it's the urge to howl along to Shock Me, or the unrelenting tap of the fingers and feet to Fugue, you are never more than a pause away from a song that could become the anthem to your life, regardless of what age your driver's license says. That those pieces add up to be something meaningful isn't merely a side effect; it's the intended result. Purple is an album that begs to be heard and, moreover, begs to be shared with anyone and everyone.
And yet, the album as you've heard it is only a fraction of the lasting impact it is likely to have.
It began as a simple social media post, some twenty weeks ago. Under a wheel of colors, the caption read "Any color you like..." While we all knew what this meant - something new was on the way - it restarted a conversation that had faded to the periphery of our memories.
In August of 2012, the band was involved in a horrific bus crash near Bath, England. Frontman John Dyer Baizley suffered a broken left arm and left leg in the accident, and then-drummer Allen Blickle and bass player Matt Maggioni each suffered fractured vertebrae. It was a devastating setback for a band that was touring in support of the critically acclaimed double album Yellow & Green, forcing them to cancel touring plans to focus on their own recovery. Fans were left to wonder what the future of Baroness would be, as Baizley and guitarist Pete Adams worked to rebuild their lives. Some seven months later, both Blickle and Maggioni exited the band. Baizley and Adams began a headlining tour of North America only a week after the announcement came, introducing their new line-up, completed by bassist Nick Jost and drummer Sebastian Thomson, to the world.
It'd been three years since the accident, and since the world of Baroness changed so suddenly and so drastically. One glance at a simple color wheel, and it seemed we were all back together at a single point in time, ready to begin a new journey. After all, we could never go back to the way things were. When you brush with tragedy, you leave that part of yourself behind.
It soon came to be that Purple, the band's fourth studio album, would be released on December 18, 2015. Pre-orders were launched, with more configurations than anyone could have hoped for. Not only had they catered to their audience in format - different vinyl options, digital and CD all available - they had offered their fans pieces of Baroness; signed lyric sheets, drum heads, guitars, artwork. It was, for many, like being released into Willy Wonka's factory and told to choose wisely. You made your choice, and marked the date on the calendar. After all, we knew how this would work.
We've grown accustomed to the typical album cycle; a formal announcement, artwork revealed, a single or two, and then the album miraculously lands in our laps, all in the span of a few weeks or more. As such, we've lost track of how much went in to bringing you that piece of art. Even in the age of social media, with unfettered access to bands 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year, we rarely see behind the curtain to the bare bones of the process. Purple changed that in an immeasurable number of ways.
First came the artwork reveal, a time lapse video of Baizley's design coming to life. It jumped off your screen, as only his artwork can. It mirrored previous album covers, all done in a signature style. The shades and textures were there, and we could see the vision for what Purple was meant to be.
Music followed, with Chlorine And Wine serving as the first single to the record. The animated video for the track once again showcased the visual component. But the in-studio version is where the curtain would begin to be pulled back. The first time you saw and heard Baizley, perched in front of a microphone wearing a Minor Threat t-shirt, shout "I've never felt so uncomfortably numb, here by your side," it sent chills through you in a way you never thought possible. You can see the brace on his elbow. The changes in his face. The weight of three years of painkillers, doubts, and memories collected in the bags under his eyes. And they poured out onto an unsuspecting pop filter. It set into motion a series of featurettes, all a part of the 'Making Purple' theme, that would strip back the facade that many "rock stars" hide behind. The uneasy smiles were gone, and you had a look at the overwhelming reality.
They'd cover the bases at first; recording of guitars, melodies, vocal harmonies, and even the addition of Jost and Thomson to the fold. But as the videos kept coming, there was a noticeable and poignant change to be had. The members of the band were, as we've all been, completely vulnerable. They spoke of uncertainty and apprehension. They spoke of coping with pain. They even shared those real moments of triumph that went into the making of an album that was as much about therapy as it was art. And through it all, the good and the bad, they showed an unwavering honesty that revealed them to be what we'd always hoped our heroes to be: they were human, after all. And all at once, the wait for Purple ceased to be about hearing songs, and more about hearing their stories and thoughts put to music.
It was four months between that color wheel and the physical realization of Purple, on that Friday in December. Perhaps unbeknownst to us, we had all become part of something bigger than another album release. Hell, maybe the band members themselves didn't really know. We watched them make Purple. We helped them find Purple, the tracks hosted in various corners of the internet music community, or a set of tickets, hidden in the town hosting their show that night. But for many of us, Purple helped us to find something, too.
The year came and went, and there were more albums released than one person could listen to in a lifetime. Most of those will come and go, a piece of wax or plastic that will forever be confined to a calendar year, only to be replaced in the weeks and months that follow. Purple is different. It's very quickly become a symbol, though what it stands for depends on the person. I don't know if Purple is everything Baizley, Adams, Jost and Thomson hoped it'd be. I've read close to one hundred reviews, found the album on countless Top 10 lists for 2015, and have listened to it more times than I care to admit. I've tried to connect the themes of 'Making Purple' to the lyrical themes on the album. And, after all that, it's left me with one existential question, for which the answer is as important as any realization I've had in many years.
When does an album become something more?