As they approach 20 years of activity, Between the Buried and Me have surely attained the status of legacy act in the realm of progressive metal with a weight to their name comparable to that of Opeth and Dream Theater; they’re world-class headliners and have crafted some of the greatest records to ever come out of the genre, and they arguably had a hand of influence in the influx of progressive metalcore acts that emerged in the mid-to-late 2000’s. With that prolific status comes its drawbacks, however; much like Opeth and Dream Theater, later-era works are the topic of much debate and are subject to higher scrutiny, and being guilty of creating an album that is just okay is damning. While our review of their previous outing Coma Ecliptic was positive, for instance, it’s universally regarded as their least best, and has divided the prog metal community and our staff. Now, three years later, Automata I (the first half the act’s new full-length — more on that later) may very well be another problematic release, but is a marked step in the right direction.
Much like Coma Ecliptic and their later-era works as a whole, Automata I sees BTBAM going straight to the source for much of the inspiration. Where mid-era records such as Colors and The Great Misdirect leaned on a set of tricks largely informed by Dream Theater, over the years, classic prog aesthetic directly from the likes of Pink Floyd, Queen, and King Crimson have crept into the band’s sound. Consequently, Coma Ecliptic served as the band’s most brightly hued and theatrical work to date, overtly leaning into its intentions as a rock opera. Automata I has some darker tones and has a mystique about its aesthetic, and while the guitar duo of Paul Waggoner and Dusty Warring don’t quite pull as much from Brian May or David Gilmour this time around, the album thus far structurally and thematically evokes Pink Floyd, particularly in the use of space and certain chord progressions, particularly the opening of “Condemned to the Gallows” and the synth-heavy “House Organ” setting the tone for Automata.
Modern prog metal flourish is still very much at play, particularly in the longer tracks “Yellow Eyes” and “Blot,” which will most satisfy longtime fans who may worry that angular oddly-time guitar work and stabbing rhythms were a thing of the past. The opening moments of “House Organ” is a unique one in the context of Between the Buried and Me’s discography, with propulsive drums, frenetic tremolo leads, and grandiose synth organs, sounding almost like industrial punk. The track also displays some of the band’s ever-creeping John Carpenter influence with synthesizers front and center in a reprise of a progression heard previously on “Condemned to the Gallows.” We don’t get many wacky genre shifts from Between the Buried and Me these days, and Automata seems at short supply as well, though “Blot” contains hints at sitar and world music influence.
Automata does promise to be much heavier than Coma Ecliptic. Frontman Tommy Rogers balances the use of harsh and clean vocals back towards favoring screams, with a more strategic approach at utilizing cleans for hooks and appropriately melodic sections, and as such feel more naturally placed. Drummer Blake Richardson is no slouch either; “Yellow Eyes” features a number of blastbeats and intricate snare rolls. Bassist Dan Briggs is as present as ever, with his ever-shifting basslines complimenting and countering the action throughout, taking the spotlight in the transition track “Gold Distance” and again during its reprisal in “Blot”. BTBAM-isms like wonky transitions, recurring lyrics and melodies, and bass drops accentuating dramatic turns make a welcomed return. In all, Automata I mostly fits right in with material from the Parallax and The Great Misdirect eras, which many fans will likely enjoy.
Unfortunately, the biggest issue with Automata is that the scheme of cutting the album in half for a completely unnecessary “double album” release greatly undermines the record as a whole, at least as it stands in the presentation of its first half. Previously, BTBAM had no qualms about pushing past an hour for a full-length album; The Parallax II: Future Sequence is just over 72 minutes, and combining Automata’s two halves puts it at about 67 minutes, making it only the third longest BTBAM record. Meanwhile, the designated EP The Parallax I: Hypersleep Dialogues is only two minutes shorter than the supposed length of Automata II. It would seem as though the band’s new home at Sumerian Records was (at best) hesitant to commit to such a length for an album or (at worst) wanted more mileage out of the record that the band turned in. Then again, we won’t know until we hear the second half, due out this summer.
It’s easy to feel cheated when presented with what appears to be only half of a record from a band that has previously been proud to present epic-length conceptual masterpieces. There’s certain expectations that come along with a new BTBAM full-length insofar as structure and flow. “Blot” does serve as a fitting as any cliffhanger, but could it perhaps be best suited as an album’s centerpiece a la “Sun of Nothing” or “Extremophile Elite”? As it stands, something seems missing despite the quality of the music heard thus far. Regardless, Between the Buried and Me have arguably never released a bad album, and as of Automata I, they’ve still yet to do so.
Between the Buried and Me’s Automata I is due out March 9th via Sumerian Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.