“Did you hear what happened to Baroness?”
That was the portentous question that got passed around the mostly insular heavy metal community in August 2012. After all, the group had just released Yellow & Green, a double-album (and the group’s third full-length) to nearly universal acclaim barely a month earlier.
It should have been their breakthrough. Baroness were one of a breed of bands operating in the thorny haze of post-2000s metal that wasn’t quite thrash, wasn’t quite nü-metal (thankfully), and wasn’t quite punk, but a postmodern hybrid of virtually every form of heavy music from the past 30 years that’s fallen under the vague umbrella label of “post-metal.” Frontman and bandleader John Dyer Baizley’s surreal artwork was the perfect visual analogue for the band’s music, which was complex, earthy and soaring, all at once. Baroness paid their dues as a touring band, touring, recording and accruing fans both in critical circles and the wider metal community.
Yellow & Green, then, should have been their victory lap. It was a sweeping, stylistically diverse album reminiscent of everything from Thin Lizzy to Queen and U2 that was posed to bring them to another level of popularity. Instead, it very nearly became their requiem. On Aug. 15, 2012, while on tour, their bus tumbled 30 feet from a viaduct in England. Drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni fractured vertebrae in their backs and subsequently left the group months later. Baizley suffered the worst of the injuries, which he eventually described in horrifying detail via the band’s website: He’d broken his left arm and leg, and the injuries to his arm were so extensive that doctors were considering amputation.
“I went in for what was thought to be a two- or three-hour surgery, and ended up coming out of surgery 10 hours later; it was more severe, complicated and difficult than even they assumed,” Baizley told Rolling Stone in 2015. While he was able to recover general mobility and his playing ability, he deals with chronic pain, a difficult tightrope to walk for someone who’s dealt with substance issues in their past, as Baizley has. His recovery took months. “There’s giant metal plates in there and there’s a ton of nerve damage, and it really feels like I’ve got this part of my arm dipped in a bathtub with a toaster oven in it,” he told SPIN in Jan. 2016. “It never goes away. There’s been no break for three years.”
Baizley and remaining guitarist Pete Adams (an Iraq War vet and Purple Heart recipient) were able to regroup following Maggioni and Blickle’s departure in early 2013. They swiftly enlisted Sebastian Thomson on drums and Nick Jost on bass, a process that was shockingly easy for all parties involved. “We’d been through lineup changes before,” Baizley told Rolling Stone. “It can be seamless, it can be difficult, but there’s nothing predictable about it. With this one, when we really needed things to be easy, they were!”
After the new lineup coalesced and Baizley recovered enough to be able to play, the group embarked on a tour in April 2013. It was a move that was as much practical as it was emotional — Baizley and Adams needed to pick up where Baroness had left off and continue to forge ahead, but also, the band was wiped out financially from the accident and needed to recoup its funds. “We were given good advice [from our management] early on, which was, ‘You guys are screwed,’” Baizley told SPIN. “What they were saying was, ‘This work — you’re not going to see the fruits of your labor.’”
After two years of recovery, on and off the road, Baroness announced Purple in August 2015 with the lead single “Chlorine and Wine.” The lyrics not-too-obliquely addressed Baizley’s recovery from his injuries and battle to stay above the waters of addiction: “When I called on my nursemaid, ‘Come sit by my side’ / But she cuts through my ribcage / And pushes the pills deep in my eyes.”
“Whatever you give me,” he sings, “please know that I’ll ask you for more.” The bus accident and recovery hung over the six-week process of making Purple (as several reviews pointed out, the color of scar tissues and bruises), but the record that emerged bears no trace of a narcotic haze. Instead, it’s leaner and more focused than Yellow & Green or that album’s predecessor, Blue. (Baizley likes colors.) Virtually every song reflects some aspect of the horror of accident, but Purple is also an unfailingly positive for much of its runtime, bolstered by towering guitar harmonies and triumphant layers of vocals, which Baizley attributed to his love of Boston, Queen and the rest of the classic rock canon. (Purple’s “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain?)” nicks the drum part from Toto’s “Rosanna.”)
“In a dream, a great calamity to stone my heart and firm resolve / and render nerves to steel,” Baizley sings in “Shock Me,” Purple’s other lead single. “A deep well of despair I found the day my dreams came true.” The band’s tour for Purple was a repudiation of that despair, then: “It’s torturous for me not to tour,” he explained to Spin. “I am most comfortable and most at ease when I’m on the road.” But even with some bumps in their return to the road — Baizley briefly lost his voice at the end of 2015 after three weeks of belting Purple’s mile-high melodies — reviewers uniformly described the band as a recharged unit.
Reviews for Purple were almost universally positive, and “Shock Me” was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy at the end of 2016. But whether the band wins or not, it’s clear, that as the fifth anniversary of the bus accident approaches, Baroness’s victories have and continue to take place in the studio, onstage, and within.
“Trauma’s tough,” Baizley told Spin. “It just leaves a big, nasty, permanent welt on your subconscious, and you’re better to recognize it and talk about it, I think, than to suppress it. And so doing a record that has elements of addressing that and elements of moving beyond it — but ultimately has a sound that we feel is energized and triumphant and overtly hopeful — for me, is a huge accomplishment.”