Of all the bands rolling into town from all over the planet this week for Free Press Summer Festival, no one had to come farther to get here than Baroness. After the alt-metal squad set out to conquer the world last year behind the excellent double album Yellow & Green, a horrific bus crash in Bath, England splintered the group, both literally and figuratively.
"We had a big year ahead of us, booked up through the early part of this year, ready to go," says guitarist Pete Adams. "Basically, man, shit hit the fan hard. That was a shitty day."
Shitty, indeed. The air brakes failed on Baroness' coach as it hurtled down a steep hill, launching the massive vehicle through a guardrail and into a wooded area 30 feet below.
Adams got off comparatively light: He only suffered minor injuries, but his bandmates weren't as lucky. After giving serious consideration to amputation, English surgeons reassembled singer/guitarist John Baizley's left arm with the help of nine-inch titanium rods. Drummer Allen Bickle and bassist Matt Maggioni both suffered broken vertebrae in the crash; each ultimately elected to leave the band. All tour dates were canceled, including the group's spot at Fun Fun Fun Fest and a headlining gig at Warehouse Live.
In those darkest of days, was there ever any doubt that Baroness would return to the stage?
"For a minute, yeah, there really was, man," Adams says. "A lot of it hinged on, 'Will John recuperate?' John was a fracture away from an amputation of his left arm. A couple weeks go by, then a few weeks, then months.
"And then there he is, getting strength back in his arm," Adams continued. "He's playing! Here we are rehearsing our set, and the energy's there. You realize how precious it all is, how fortunate we really are to be playing music, to be out doing something that we set out to do and something that we wanted to do as kids. It's like a childhood dream to do this kind of thing, you know?"
And so, nearly a year later, they're living the dream once more. Adams will join cyborg-Baizley and new members Nick Jost and Sebastian Thomson at Eleanor Tinsley Park on Sunday to bring songs from Yellow & Green to their Houston fans at last.
Assuming, of course, they can brave the heat.
"We were just talking about that today, because it's pretty hot up here in Philadelphia," says Adams, chuckling. "We were kind of laughing, like, 'Oh, wait until we get to Houston.'
"Am I ready for the heat? Yes and no," he continued. "I'm glad that the winter's over here. Hopefully I'm acclimatized enough!"
Metalheads able to hang with the sunshine will be rewarded by both the burly stomp upon which Baroness made its name as well as the chillier, more subtle pleasures of their latest effort. Chief amongst them? The harmonizing of Adams and Baizley's guitar strings and vocal chords on songs like "March to the Sea," one of many tracks on the album that feels like a throwback to an earlier strain of '90s rock pioneered by the likes of Soundgarden.
"I love playing that song, man," Adams says. "It's just nothing but energy and nothing but fun. I'll be honest with you, I can't wait to play all the new stuff. We've put together this really good set, which for the first time has a lot more dynamics than we've ever had in a set."
In an era of metal when their Relapse Records labelmates are still mostly trying to out-brutalize one another, Baroness is tackling far trickier territory. The electric ticking of the new song "Psalms Alive" has more in common with the music of FPSF-mates the Postal Service than it does with Black Sabbath, and yet the fetid smell of Savannah swamp sludge never quite washes off. It's pretty great.
These are the songs that Adams and Baizley had running through their heads during the band's slow, creeping recovery period. Expect a heroic dose of the new stuff at the Fest.
"It's going to be a lot of new stuff," Adams says. "We'll definitely always keep some old stuff on hand and play that stuff, but this is going to be mainly a real rockin' set. That's a festival set, the high-energy set."
Hot and sweaty as it might be on Sunday, Baroness has already been through the fire. The opportunity to play for a large crowd itching for soming heavy and new is something they aren't likely to take for granted anytime soon, no matter how daunting it is to get back on that bus.
"We all lived, which is amazing," Adams says. "So when you're given that chance to keep on gettin' it, man, yeah: The only thing you can do is stay positive. You recuperate, you get your head back in it, and you push forward."
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Baroness pushes forward on the Saturn stage at 1:20 p.m. Sunday at Free Press Summer Fest.