REVIEW: BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME – “Automata I”
I recently watched a 2014 episode of “What’s in my Bag?” featuring Dan Briggs, the bassist for Raleigh, North Carolina progressive metal stalwarts Between the Buried and Me, whose new LP ‘Automata I’ (part 1 of a 2-part concept record) drops on 3/9/18 via Sumerian Records. The series follows artists and other notable “trendsetters” as they peruse the aisles of LA record superstore Amoeba Music, and discuss their purchases. Briggs predictably praises Robert Fripp and John Zorn, and namedrops an eclectic selection of other artists including Haken, Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo, True Widow and Failure. When someone off camera laughs at Brigg’s mention of Failure’s Ken Andrews’s production work with nineties alt-rockers Candlebox, Briggs responds with a sincere endorsement of their best known song Far Behind. This anecdote, and the whole interview spot in general, is indicative of the band’s breadth of influences, and their willingness to step outside of the tech death box with aplomb and with little regard to genre purity, perceived taste, or conventions. BTBAM follow their own muse, and that is what makes them stand out.
According to the press release, ‘Automata’ and its companion LP ‘Automata II’ (which arrives this Summer) tells the Black Mirror-esque story of a dystopian future where dreams are broadcast as entertainment. Lead-off single, “Condemned to the Gallows” kicks off the proceedings with a tightly woven blast of quintessential BTBAM. Beginning with an acoustic intro, the song takes off into distorted unpredictable rhythms, and aggressive unhinged vocals. By the time the epic melodic arpeggios of guitarist Paul Waggoner’s lead break arrive, you realize that the band has pulled off the neat trick of an effortless and understated transition through a dizzying array of riffs, rhythms, and moods. Singer-keyboardist Tommy Giles Rogers states that lyrically, “Condemned to the Gallows” sets up the whole story.” With lines like “Warm blood drips on cold snow,” and “the curtain surrounds logical thought,” the lyrics describe a cold, grim, and inescapable nightmare.
The beginning of “House Organ” alternates between various combinations of a syncopated beat and a dirge riff, before an excellent piece of drum work by Blake Richardson serves as a transition into a sad, spacy piano led chorus, which finds Rogers repeating an earworm melody with the fitting lines “Hold your tongues and let me speak. There’s more to this than it may seem” over and over. These lines almost serve as a declaration of intent, for a band that’s as committed to delivering an album that’s as rooted in concept and emotion as they are to delivering one that’s technically dazzling.
“Yellow Eyes” possesses all of the things BTBAM are known for—memorable choruses, fluid and melodic leads, and tight, rhythmic twists and turns. It staggers a bit with its sprawling arrangement, but repeated spins reward the listener.
In direct contrast, the focused melodicism of “Millions” is refreshingly direct, and is the first song on the album where the band truly breaks new ground. Stripped of the complex rhythms and adornments of the previous songs, the band lets their more traditional songwriting chops shine through to great effect.
The atmospheric synth-driven instrumental track “Gold Distance” aptly sets the mood for epic closer “Blot.” The song begins with a moody sitar-led theme which dissolves into an angular melody married to a start-and-stop riff à la Pain of Salvation, before alternating a hypnotic verse groove with the sitar led theme. This is followed by a detour into a heavier, more aggressive riff, before eventually resolving into a Muse by way of The Human Abstract-like chorus. Waggoner and rhythm guitarist Dustie Waring then lead the band into a mid-song riff fest that ebbs and flows through a variety of moods, tempos and nicely woven recurrent themes before the band closes the book on long player #8 with a welcome and triumphant return to the chorus theme.
With ‘Automata I’, Between the Buried and Me have crafted a sublime conceptual piece in the same vein as its immediate predecessor, 2016’s excellent Coma Ecliptic. While it does not break a lot of new ground stylistically, there is an extra emotional heft in the singing and melodies, and an atmospheric touch, which is reflective of the lyrical concept. These new elements elevate the overall song-craft and record cohesiveness, and serve to effectively anchor the set in spite of its complex and often disparate motifs and arrangements.