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.