Between the Buried and Me – Coma Ecliptic [2015]

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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.

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CHON – Grow [2015]

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CHON have been instrumental music’s best kept secret for a few years now. They’ve been seen on high profile tours with bands like Animals as Leaders and Circa Survive, but up until now, their actual discography has consisted solely of two short EPs and a handful of bedroom-quality demos. Grow is the band’s first full-length release, made possible by their recent signing with Sumerian Records.

In CHON’s early days, it was fairly easy to write them off as an instrumental rip off of The Fall of Troy, heavily borrowing from their style and only making it their own with the major-key spin they placed on it. But they’ve come a long way since then, and Grow shows the band truly coming into their own. Here CHON demonstrates their ear for melody and progression, no longer keeping to the frenetic riffing that characterized their earlier work. It’s a markedly different sound, one which resides mostly on the lower side of the tempo spectrum, and is replete with clean guitars and tasteful drumming. The result is music that is ridiculously sunny and upbeat, gentle yet energetic, and with enough technicality to even keep the theory nerds entertained. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s packed to the gills with rote extended range riffing and guitar work that’s complex only for the sake of being complex. CHON knows when to flash their skills and when to take a step back and let simpler tricks do the work, and that extends to another section of this album: vocals. While by no means ditching their status as an instrumental band, they’ve expanded their repertoire to include some sung sections, too (provided by bassist Drew Pelisek on “Can’t Wait” and “Echo“). And despite these songs being surrounded by instrumental tracks, they don’t stand out like a sore thumb – Pelisek’s voice is smooth and mellow, blending with and complimenting the music in a way that feels like it has belonged there all along. However, there are a few snags on CHON’s debut record. Though they’re excellent musicians and have a knack for melody, their songwriting doesn’t feel quite there yet. Songs like “Story” and “Perfect Pillow” are immediate and memorable, yet others like “Suda” and “Moon” don’t seem to go anywhere, feeling more like an improvisation over a backing track than a unique song. Luckily, the album’s short length (just a hair over 34 minutes) means that despite this flaw, there isn’t really enough time for it to stagnate. The best tracks still have room to breathe without having to fight for attention against a glut of other tracks, and CHON’s music is so pleasant that even in its duller moments, it’s hard to dislike. But more than anything, it must be remembered that Grow is the debut work of an incredibly young, incredibly talented group of musicians. CHON has a unique, sunny sound that’s uncommon in the world of instrumental guitar music right now, and the technical chops to earn their place in it. Grow might not be an absolutely perfect album, but it’s the proof of concept for a band with tons of potential.

Key Tracks: Story, Splash, Perfect Pillow, Echo

Circa Survive – Descensus (2014)

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Circa Survive is officially an ‘old’ band now. Formed in 2004, with their first release coming with 2005’s Juturna,  they’ve come to be one of the most consistent and powerful bands in the alternative rock sphere. This year, they made a surprising move in signing with Sumerian Records, first rereleasing 2012’s Violent Waves, and now delivering their fifth and newest studio effort, Descensus. At this point in most bands’ careers, it’s where you see them start to slip and fail to live up to their standards.

Circa Survive is not such a band.  Since Juturna, they’re a band that has managed to grow and mature, without having to become something else entirely to do it. And that’s no easy feat – to stay fresh and exciting for ten years – without suddenly throwing in EDM beats or disappearing up their own asses like some kind of freakish musical Ouroboros.

Descensus is yet another step down that path, incorporating both old and new sounds to create something new. What’s most apparent on the first listen is that this album is much more balanced than it’s predecessor Violent Waves was, which traded on long streaks of down-tempo songwriting and melancholy. Descensus has instead struck a balance between these quieter passages and the louder ones, with the screeching ‘Schema’ barreling out of the gate with crashing drums and tortured guitar scrapes, while songs like ‘Phantom’ and ‘Who Will Lie With Me Now’ (clocking in at a brief 54 seconds) take things down a peg and giving the album some room to breath. This is quite possibly Circa’s most dynamic album, because it smoothly jumps between moods and doesn’t stay stuck in one gear for too long (unlike some of Blue Sky Noise or Violent Waves do).

Descensus was actually touted to be Circa’s heaviest album yet, and while it’s not necessarily much heavier than any of their other records, it certainly has no shortage of hard-rocking songs. As mentioned before, ‘Schema’ is an excellent, brash opener, and songs like ‘Sovereign Circle’ and ‘Quiet Down’ are angry, pounding tracks that would almost seem out of character if not for the trademark guitar interplay of Brendan Ekstrom and Colin Frangicetto. They play with dynamics on ‘Child of the Desert’, too – what at first seems like a brooding, broiling track erupts into straight up groovy rock riffing, soloing, and screaming.

And here’s where that fine balance comes in – for all the harder rocking tracks on this album, there’s also moments of empty space and beauty, which allow it to breathe and flow like a true album should. ‘Phantom’ sounds like something you could sit under an umbrella on the beach and watch the waves to, replete with echoey lap steel guitars, and yet hides a darker lyrical center: Anthony would “rather be on my own, than with you”. ‘Who Will Lie With Me Now’ is a spacey interlude, with some small snippets of vocals buried in reverb drifting through the hollow, empty-sounding guitars. But the real centerpiece of the album, both literally and figuratively, is ‘Nesting Dolls’. This song finds Circa Survive doing their best Explosions in the Sky, but instead of mindlessly aping, they’ve actually created one of the most beautiful songs they’ve ever written. ‘Nesting Dolls’ floats along with gentle, bright guitar arpeggios and ethereal vocals, (at times buried similarly in the mix as in ‘Who Will Lie With Me Now’), and slowly works it’s way up to what seems like the typical cliche post-rock crescendo. However, right at the critical moment, it simply floats back down to Earth, fading out with grace instead of feeling the need to explode.

Descensus also sports the band’s longest song to date in the title track, which closes out the album. It’s a nine minute journey that starts off with the same echoey guitars as ‘Phantom’ and a driving bass line, and feels almost cinematic in the way it smoothly works it way up to a flurry of guitar tapping and then comes back down. Eventually, the chugging guitar from the beginning of the track returns as a sort of motif for the second half, which is much more restrained and spacey. This simple chugging motif becomes hypnotizing, as it’s embellished with the occasional strain of guitar and reverb, and gently ends the album by making it feel like we’re floating out of it, instead of crashing into a wall. This track is actually a great summation of the album itself, emphasizing it’s balance between driving, progressive-tinged rock and drifting, spacey sounds all in one song.

It feels as if Circa Survive has made finally the album they’ve been working towards since Blue Sky Noise. Descensus has that album’s strong sense of hooky songwriting, but also incorporates Violent Waves’  sense of space and melancholy, creating a whole that knows when it should push the pedal to the metal and when to back off and breathe. ‘Nesting Dolls’ and ‘Descensus’ take the band into territory it hasn’t explored before, and tracks like ‘Schema’ and ‘Sovereign Circle’ rock like they haven’t since On Letting Go. And yet for all this album does, it still stays recognizably Circa Survive, and in that respect it probably won’t win over any new fans or suddenly push them into stardom. But that’s fine, because instead Descensus finds a band that’s ten years into their career and still firing on all cylinders, still delivering music that pushes their boundaries, and still insanely worth listening to.

Key Tracks: Schema, Nesting Dolls, Phantom, Sovereign Circle, Descensus

New Periphery Song ‘The Scourge’ from Upcoming Double Album

Periphery just unleashed the first single from their new double album, ‘Juggernaut: Alpha and Omega’. The set is to arrive on January 27th, 2015, and ‘The Scourge’ is the first track from it.

I’m really excited about this track. It has all the hallmarks of a Periphery song, but also bears a lot of classic prog elements, as well, in both structure and tone. It stays fairly tame for the first two minutes or so, gliding along on a chunky palm muted riff and simple leads, only to explode with Spencer’s viscous screams and classic technical Per-riffery (heh). The word ‘epic’ may be horribly overused these days, but the way The Scourge ebbs and flows creates a sense of tension and drama that culminates in a song pretty worthy of the word.

And on a side note, here’s the covers to both halves of the album:

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And you can pre-order the album on the excellent site Killer Merch, as well:

https://www.killermerch.com/artist/Periphery

Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect (2009)

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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