A few months deep into digesting Automata I, it’s safe to say that our introduction to the new conceptual world of Between the Buried and Me was, at the very least, an adequate as a return to form of sorts following the more operatic nature of 2015’s Coma Ecliptic, with tracks like “Yellow Eyes” and “Blot” quickly cementing themselves to the echelon of BTBAM prog classics while shorter bursts through “House Organ” and “Millions” offered a welcome change of pace within the BTBAM sound. Even as a weak opener compared to past records, “Condemned to the Gallows” grew into a banger all its own.
Regardless, with the release of its second half Automata II, the glaring fault in the decision (be it the band’s or label’s final say) to cut the album in half, halting the momentum of an album that was originally written and recorded as a singular unit, grows even more irritating and baffling. At a whopping four tracks and just over a half-hour, Automata II feels paltry on its own and confirms some suspicions about the nature of an album’s structure and continuity as it inhabits the headspace of the listener, particularly for a band with material as dense and conceptually-heavy like Between the Buried and Me.
Breaking this record into two makes it hard to overcome compartmentalization and to enjoy its entirety from beginning to end and ultimately blemishes the listening experience. Both parts alone feel short and incomplete without each other, and listening to both parts together is a strange experience because of the difference in tread on the front and back tires. At this point, Automata I is well-worn and familiar, and having listened to it so long on its own, it doesn’t feel like it shares a connection with Automata II. With the excitement of new music looming, getting through Automata I for a sense of context before playing Automata II feels like a chore, which is disastrous.
But so much about the nature of the album’s release; how’s the music? Fortunately, despite some issues with flow and consistency, Automata II contains some of the most inspired musicianship seen from these modern prog legends in years.
Out of the gate, Automata II dazzles with “The Proverbial Bellow,” which sports an incredible instrumental opening that hearkens to fan-favorite instrumental-frenzy moments from tracks like the mid-section to “Swim to the Moon,” featuring angular guitar licks and playful use of organ. As the track gets going, “The Proverbial Bellow” feels increasingly cinematic with a synth-lead verse, tackling issues of self-awareness and the human condition (in typical BTBAM fashion) that resolves in a haunting chorus that cements the track as a highlight to Automata as a whole. The 13-minute track runs through some hypnotic instrumentals in its second half with a massive earworm of a groove. “Bellow” is truly the quintessential modern BTBAM track.
What follows is what could possibly be some of the most exciting and creative moments in the Between the Buried and Me discography with the tracks “Glide” and “Voice of Trespass.” “Glide” is a relatively stark track comparable to Future Sequence‘s “The Black Box,” with an affected Tommy Rogers crooning over accordion in a twisted circus waltz that transitions into a piano-driven ballad that transitions into a moment of quirky jazz that sets the tone for “Voice of Trespass,” which fully realizes the avant-garde side of BTBAM that we heard previously on “Bloom” and “The Ectopic Stroll.” Taking cues from Diablo Swing Orchestra or Thank You Scientist, “Trespass” erupts into metallic swing jazz with horn crescendos. Rogers dons further vocal affectations and develops a gravelly character that extols the virtues of capitalism within the world of Automata from the perspective of the antagonist company trafficking dreams with lyrics such as, “my pockets are getting big! I’ve got dollar signs in my eyes!” The track progresses through swinging jazz, call-and-response soloing (including bass and drums!), and Rogers scatting in transitions. At the midpoint, the avant-garde music transitions into standard-issue BTBAM-isms, going hard with a breakdown and a callback to “Condemned to the Gallows” from the album’s first half. “Trespass” is top-tier BTBAM, and is evidence that they are capable of exhilarating and inspired musical experimentation that was missing from Automata I.
The record’s finale pales in comparison to the cinematic and experimental tracks that followed and is more in keeping with the style heard on Automata I. “The Grid” is the least epic album finale since Alaska, but considering that the band were going for an uncharacteristically positive ending (the previous two concept records ended in death), it’s understandable that the band wanted to ease the record into a sense of calm than to go out with a bang. No trading solos, no dazzling instrumental section, and no earth-shattering breakdowns here; The 10-minute “The Grid” is a mid-tempo’d melodic prog metal with flavors of grunge buoyed by a floaty synth lead and an understated chorus, but does feature moments of heaviness including a scratchy guitar riff at the intro and propulsive drumming in a metallic halfway point. It’s a serviceable ending in a vacuum, but following the neckbreak pace and intrique of “Voice of Trespass,” it’s weird to hear a BTBAM record fizzle instead of explode.
All things considered, Automata II definitely is an inspired addition to the discography, and a welcome surprise following what could have been a new sound developed on Coma Ecliptic. There are lingering issues of balance between the two halves and consistency as a front-to-back album experience when combining the two, but the music speaks for itself. The passion, creativity, and experimental nature of Between the Buried and Me remains, and fans of post-Colors era BTBAM are sure to be satisfied.
There are currently no full-track singles from Automata II, but teasers of each track can be heard on Between the Buried and Me’s Facebook page. Automata II will be released July 13th via Sumerian Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.