When the members of the alt-metal band Baroness woke up on their tour bus en route to Southampton, England, one day last August, they had plenty of reasons to feel good about themselves.
The quartet, led by Philadelphian John Baizley, had just released its third album, Yellow & Green. The double LP, recorded at the band's rehearsal space in North Wales, had been praised lavishly in the media. With its melodic sound, the album was poised to help the band break through to a mainstream rock audience.
"We were ready," says Baizley, sitting in his Germantown backyard Tuesday alongside lead guitarist Pete Adams. "And then August 15th happened."
On that morning, Baizley was sitting up front with driver Norman Markus when the 1983 Mercedes motor coach turned down a two-mile-long hill with a steep 12 percent grade. "It was misty and rainy and the air brakes on the bus failed very quickly," Baizley recalls. "We were out of control for a minute, two minutes almost. For a really long time."
As the vehicle picked up speed, there were no turnoff ramps, no roads to turn onto.
"When I first heard the brakes go out," Baizley says. "My reptile brain goes, 'There's like 99 percent chance we're going to be fine.' And every second it just whittled down to, 'We're going to crash, and we're going to die.' It was like two miles of panic and, 'Oh my God, I don't know what's going to happen.' "
What did happen that day near the city of Bath was this: The bus crashed through a guardrail and flew through the air. "We're looking at the tops of trees, slapping the windshield, wispy and wet. That's when it got really quiet."
"I looked at the driver, and he and I said goodbye to each other," says Baizley, who's 34 and lives with his wife, Amanda, and 3-year-old daughter, Isabella. "We just assumed we were dead."
Flung around the cabin "like a shoe in a dryer," Adams, 30, an Iraq war Army veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart after taking shrapnel in his right eye outside Fallujah in 2003, figured his time was up. "It was one last, 'It's been real' - you don't get that many chances."
Turned out, they had one more. The bus dropped more than 30 feet but its landing was cushioned by trees. Barefoot, in boxers, Adams expected "someone to be dead, if not more than one person."
Emergency medical technicians arrived within minutes. Adams escaped without broken bones, but bass player Matt Maggioni and drummer Allen Blickle both broke vertebrae and have left the band in advance of the U.S. tour that will finally commence in Philadelphia when the band plays Union Transfer on Friday. (Baizley and Adams are joined on this tour by new members Nick Jost and Sebastian Thomson, both New Yorkers.)
Of the band members, Baizley, who broke his left leg and arm - the latter shattered into about a dozen pieces - got it worst.
"My arm was shapped like a W," says the singer-guitarist. There was talk of amputation. Instead, his doctors reassembled his humerus with "more screws than I can count and two nine-inch titanium plates." He spend three weeks in the hospital, and four months in a wheelchair.
By October, though, he was able to play guitar. "It seems fine," he says. "I've lost maybe 1 percent of dexterity. Nothing to complain about."
They laud the British National Health Service, but band members are saddled with enormous bills. To help, other metal bands, like Mastodon and Black Tusk, have donated items for an online auction at baronessrelief.org.
"It's a massive thing: I could scream about it all day long," says Baizley, who is also a visual artist. He has done artwork for Baroness' albums, as well as for acts as disparate as Gillian Welch and Flight of the Conchords. "It's the inner drive to create things, to make things with my hands."
Baizley and Adams grew up in Virginia, in the town of Lexington, and have been in bands since Adams was 12. They caught the punk and hard-rock bug from Nirvana, then got into metal via Metallica and Motörhead.
Broad smiles break out as they name bands they had been in before Baizley went to the Rhode Island School of Design and Adams joined the Army: Jab. Stomach Flew. Cyclone Boy. Bulbs of Passion. Cosmic Kitty. Cruel Ambiance. Nien Nunb. (A Star Wars reference.) "They all kind of sounded like Wayne's World," Baizley says.
Baizley found his way to Savannah, Ga., where Baroness was formed in 2003. Their first full-length, Red Album, came out four years later. Adams joined the band for Blue Record, in 2009, and the next year Baizley and his family moved to Philadelphia for "geographic, economic, and familial reasons." (The band's label for all three has been Relapse Records, based in Upper Darby.)
After the crash, Adams worried whether Baroness would play again. "That's a tough one to swallow, when you've spent the majority of your life passionate about this stuff, and sacrificing everything else for it. If not this, what?"
"You walk away from something like this with an appreciation of your support system . . . and everyone who cares," says Baizley. "We're not a sure thing. We never have been. And people are still willing to put their bets down on us . . . . It's inspiring to me what people have done for us. It started off with one really bad thing and ended up being really good."
"We're realistic people," says Adams. "We understand life has its ups and downs. But when you play now, you go through every emotion you got."
"You try not to make every moment so melodramatic," says Baizley, looking around his backyard. "But it's kind of awesome that we're sitting here."
8:30 p.m. Friday at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. Tickets: $17.50-$20. Information: www.utphilly.com
For video of Baroness performing "The Line Between," go to www.inquirer.com/baroness