I’ve had a rocky relationship with Between the Buried and Me for quite a while now.
I used to be a huge fan of the band during the Colors era, loving that album and the ones before it. But as time went on and their new releases piled up – The Great Misdirect, Hypersleep Dialogues, The Parallax II –I started to grow bored of their approach. It felt as if they had locked themselves into a sound and had no clue how to get out of it, turning every song into an endless marathon of stuck-together riffs and unending one-note growls. For a band that made a name by experimenting with their sound from release to release, Between the Buried and Me sure seemed like they were stuck in a rut.
I couldn’t bring myself to ever fully give up on them, though. This was the band that first got me into metal and progressive metal, so they will always have that place in my heart (this is the same rationale I use to justify listening to each new Weezer album, god help me). So when I heard about the upcoming release of Coma Ecliptic, backed up by the band’s assertions that they were pushing themselves in a new direction this time, I couldn’t help but give them another chance.
Coma Ecliptic is a concept album that’s styled after the classic rock operas of yore, from The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It follows a man who falls into a coma and is given the chance to explore other lives and worlds, and given the choice to decide whether to stay in one or continue searching for a better one. While Between the Buried and Me is no longer a stranger to concept albums, this being their second, Coma Ecliptic is an album that truly feels like a concept album. The music has a flow and a dramatic portent to it that The Parallax II lacked, drifting from tension building organ lines, horn sections, and their trademark metal approach with ease. This wasn’t something that was always easy for them in the past, because we ARE talking about the same band that has thrown hoe-down honky tonk music and horse neigh breakdowns into their music before. But on Coma Ecliptic, Between the Buried and Me takes a much more refined, measured approach to their writing, writing for the songs and the melodies rather than for the sake of experimentation.
With that said, it’s surprising that this is still the most experimental music they’ve recorded since Colors. The band has been showing off classic rock and prog influence in their music for quite a while at this point, but it often manifested more as a curiosity than a core element of their sound. But Coma Ecliptic shows the band stripping their sound down from their intensely technical prog metal into something more akin to a Yes or early Genesis record, bringing in organs, horns, piano, brash classic rock guitar leads, and a heavy focus on clean vocals. While those elements were always a part of the band’s sound, here they’re actually the focus and basis for much of these songs – “Node” is led almost entirely by a Rhodes piano, “Dim Ignition” is built around spacey arpeggiated synth work, and “Turn on the Darkness” boasts an unsettling atmosphere boosted by it’s huge bassy piano chords and minor acoustic guitar work. Every song here ends up having its own distinctive melodic core and musical ideas, and as a result these songs are immediately memorable. Coma Ecliptic isn’t a record that takes dozens of listens to unpack and parse, but rather lends itself to replayability by the simple fact that many of these songs are just plain catchy.
And one of the main reasons for that, besides the band’s new found penchant for smooth dynamics and instrumental experimentation, are the vocals. Much of Between the Buried and Me’s discography is led vocally by Tommy Rogers’ powerful growls, with small singing sections interspersed throughout. That script is flipped on this album, though. Where his clean vocals once sounded shy and robotic, he’s truly come into his own here. From his soaring, belted vocals in “Option Oblivion”, the muted and hushed opening of “Node”, or the crazed Mike Patton-esque delivery on “The Ectopic Stroll”, Rogers has a range and prowess on Coma Ecliptic that he hasn’t had on any other Between the Buried and Me album. Now that the band has stripped back much of their technical metal sound, there’s a space for his vocal melodies to carry the songs in different directions, and his growl is still there as a backup when the band decides to get heavy. It’s quite refreshing to hear these distinct vocal melodies where Rogers would have once opted simply to growl.
For most bands, it’s almost impossible to shift gears seven albums into their career. Many bands experiment early on and settle into a sound for the rest of their career, and Between the Buried and Me very nearly fell into that category. Instead, they wrote Coma Ecliptic, a record that challenged their own boundaries and opened up their sound to brand new territory. The result is their most focused, immediate, and rewarding album in nearly a decade. By blowing up their old school prog influences on a large scale, focusing more closely on melody and songwriting, and making clean vocals a major part of the music, they’ve written an album that will be refreshing to long-time fans, challenging to others, and exciting for newcomers. Welcome back, guys.
Between the Buried and Me have released the first track from their upcoming album, Coma Ecliptic. The album, which follows 2012’s The Parallax II, is once again a concept album, following a man as he journeys through his past lives. “Memory Palace” is an incredibly proggy sounding track, sounding inspired by some of the same music that has inspired fellow progressive metal act Opeth’s past two albums. It features heavy synthesizer and organ work, pushing the guitars further into the background than most of the band’s material. It is also heavily focused on clean vocals, and vocalist Tommy Rogers’ range is wider than it has been since 2007’s Colors. He yelps, croons, and growls in a moment’s notice, giving the track a desperately needed infusion of variety. And like Rogers’ vocals, the music of the song jumps around too, veering from Pink Floyd-esque lead guitar lines, classic heavy riffs and growls, and ’70s sounding synthesizer effortlessly.
The biggest problem with Between the Buried and Me’s recent material is their refusal to grow in any meaningful way, but “Memory Palace” shows the band finally pushing themselves into a new direction again. By putting the laser focus on the proggiest elements of their sound, and driving the track with mostly clean vocals, the result is a song that still sounds like Between the Buried and Me, but finally delivers a fresher take on their sound. And for once, their genre skipping sounds natural, blending in elements of their influences without sounding like they were forced into the song with a crowbar. If this is any indicator of what to expect from Coma Ecliptic, it might just be the band’s best album in nearly a decade.
Listen to the song here.
To say all eyes were on Between the Buried and Me after 2007’s masterpiece Colors would be an understatement. At that point, the band had upped their game with every album, redefining their sound and pushing their limits each time. It was easy to expect them to follow that trend and blow us away yet again, and the hype was on when The Great Misdirect was finally announced. It’s pretty easy to see where I’m heading with this set up – The Great Misdirect was not, in fact, another game-changer from the band, leaving Colors behind in its wake and once again redefining them. What it was, rather, was a good album, just not a great one.
Why was that? All of the things that this band does best – crushing, technical guitar playing with an ear for melody, diverse and varied song structure, songs of epic length – they’re all there. Colors had marked a shift, where Between the Buried and Me finally grew out of their -core influenced sound and into their lofty sonic ambitions, finding their niche in the process. And once they found that niche, they seemed to no longer feel the need to prove and push themselves, evidenced by the fact that after another album and EP since The Great Misdirect, they haven’t had another drastic stylistic change.
But all that is getting a bit ahead of ourselves. If The Great Misdirect can be summed up with any one word, it would be ‘refined’. What it does best is taking the long-form, progressive elements of Colors, and further work them into the band’s sound. At times Colors sounded a little disjointed; the growing pains of a band experimenting with a new style. The Great Misdirect still suffers from that at times (the horse-neigh fueled country rock breakdown of ‘Disease, Injury, Madness’ being the most glaring example), but with a similar album already under their belts, the result much more natural and smoother sounding than its predecessor. ‘Obfuscation’ shifts seemlessly back and forth between heavy riffs that push and pull, to sections that sound like something off of a Pink Floyd record, making it an exciting journey of a track that rivals anything on Colors. ‘Fossil Genera – A Feed From Cloud Mountain’ manages to take a quirky bar-room piano melody and turn it into a compelling intro, setting the song up for a perfect kick in the ass when the rest of the band finally joins in. ‘Mirrors’ is a dose of calm before the storm, floating around in an ocean of jazzy, clean guitar and marking itself as one of the only Between the Buried and Me songs to be entirely sung.
The Great Misdirect’s greatest flaw isn’t actually a flaw. It’s the lack thereof – it’s too perfect and predictable, which, coming from one of the most-forward thinking metal bands of our time, simply isn’t acceptable. We had been shown hints of the band’s progressive songwriting as early on as The Silent Circus, and Alaska was the bridge between that album and Colors. While still remaining exceptional at what they do, The Great Misdirect was the first sign of things starting to get stale. ‘Swim to the Moon’ tries to replicate the epic feel of ‘White Walls’, but falls into the trap of simply stacking riff after riff on top of each other, eventually descending into Dream Theater-esque soloing that only serves to pad the length of the song. And speaking of length, besides ‘Mirrors’ and ‘Desert of Song’, the band no longer dips below the nine minute mark, ‘Swim to the Moon’ itself clocking it at nearly eighteen minutes. Every song is now a marathon of ideas, riffs, and leads, and after a few listens that becomes pretty damn fatiguing. It lends the music a feeling of amnesia, in which it’s hard to recall any particular part without repeated listens. And suddenly, those ‘quirky’ sections start to feel forced in to give the songs their memorability.
Whew. That’s a lot of negativity. The truth is, for all the problems with The Great Misdirect, there’s just as many moments that have the ability to blow you away. ‘Disease, Injury, Madness’ stands out as one of the finest songs in their catalog, reaching a new level of heaviness and intensity while still being a dynamic and interesting piece of music. ‘Fossil Genera’, as mentioned before, is quirky and at times totally out of character for a metal band, and that’s what makes it a fascinating listen. ‘Obfuscation’ manages to sound straight forward despite it’s many changes, anchored by a strong chorus and tight arrangement, truly a song that needs all of its nine minutes. I might have expected too much from them to pull another stylistic shake-up out of their hats, and failed to see that they had created another great slab of unique progressive metal. But I also still can’t help but feel a little disappointed by that as well, seeing as they had managed to do it four other times before. Either way, The Great Misdirect still adds to their discography in a necessary way, serving as evidence of a band that had finally settled into a groove and could successfully wring out the exact kind of music they wanted, while giving the fans new songs to fawn over and analyze. They’re still at it now: their newest album, The Parallax II: Future Sequence suffers from a lot of the same problems The Great Misdirect does, but it also has it’s share of great Between the Buried and Me songs. And so it goes – maybe they’re not as exciting as they once were, but they’re still capable of creating great metal.
Key Tracks: Obfuscation, Disease, Injury, Madness, Fossil Genera – A Feed from Cloud Mountain
Between the Buried and Me – Colors (2007)
“Simply put, Colors is a layered, lush and enthralling masterpiece.”
1. Foam Born (a): The Backtrack
2. Foam Born (b): The Decade of Statues
3. Informal Gluttony
4. Sun of Nothing
5. Ants of the Sky
6. Prequel to the Sequel
8. White Walls
If I had to choose a favorite Between the Buried and Me album, I’d give that distinction to the jaw-dropping Colors. I have still yet to hear anything else on its level, or even in the same building for that matter.
Simply put, Colors is a layered, lush and enthralling masterpiece. It is densely layered, and reveals itself more and more upon every listen. You’d be best off listening through a great pair of headphones, letting yourself get lost in the sonic landscapes created.
If I had to give a single reason as to why I adore the album so much, I’d say White Walls. It’s a no-brainer, closing the album – it sums up the entire experience of Colors in its chugging riffs, brutal vocals, and soaring, melodic guitar work. Despite its 14 minute long running time, it doesn’t feel long at all. It flows as one solid, ever-changing piece – much like the album as a whole. According to iTunes, I’ve played the song a total of 53 times – a whopping 12.36 hours.
White Walls isn’t the only reason Colors has rightly earned it’s praise by both the critics and me – songs like “Prequel to the Sequel” and “Sun of Nothing” build and build to chaotic, cathartic releases – the former being a shining example of this. There’s also another element to BTBAM’s sound on Colors – and that’s their fun-loving, “do whatever the hell we want” personality. “Ants of the Sky” was one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever had when listening to a song – and it came in the form of a hoedown in the final minutes of the song. (The other huge shock would be all of Chris Cornell’s album Scream – but that’s getting into the territory of repressed memories)
Colors is a truly mind-blowing album, and no words can truly describe it. As I said earlier, you have to sit down with a great pair of headphones and absorb it. Otherwise, you’re missing out.