Seemingly in spite of the increasingly divided fan opinion regarding the group’s musical trajectory over the years, North Carolina’s shining sons Between the Buried and Me have become one of the best selling and most influential acts in progressive metal. Throughout their fifteen year career thus far, the band’s hardcore roots have slowly eroded away, showing an affinity for classic prog rock in the vein of Queen, Pink Floyd, and King Crimson (which everyone should have seen coming after the band covered all three for The Anatomy Of). This inevitability has been hinted at since Alaska, with the band adopting conceptual themes, epic-length tracks, and a subtle flair for the theatrical. This maturation comes to a head on Coma Ecliptic, the band’s seventh original studio album, as a cosmic rock opera that follows a man entering a self-induced coma in order to explore his past lives in the hope of finding something better.
In order to properly discuss Coma Ecliptic as a pivotal moment in the evolution of Between the Buried and Me as a progressive act, one must first address the elephant in the room, “maturity”. It’s become a bit of a loaded word, more often than not indicating that a band has developed a more straightforward and less aggressive sound, abandoning the style that established them in the first place. New releases from acts like Cynic, The Contortionist, and Opeth have been scrutinized for allegedly becoming self-indulgent and pretentious, if not completely neutered. Few things rile up a fanbase faster than implying that the records that they have fallen in love with were somehow juvenile or not artful, so the use or implication of the word “mature” raises red flags.
And Coma Ecliptic will undoubtedly face this same sort of scrutiny as a record self-identified as a predominately clean-sung rock opera citing influences from acts such as Genesis and The Who. However, while Coma Ecliptic is a considerable departure for Between the Buried and Me, it’s not entirely out of character. Coma Ecliptic occupies an entirely different headspace than Parallax II: Future Sequence, but the band’s unmistakable signature sound — and ultimately, the experience everyone expected — remains throughout. This is a culmination of years of preparing for what, apparently, the band have been wanting to do all along, but have not had the courage or confidence to pull off directly. Now that they’ve worked themselves up to the task, the results are glorious.
From the very beginning, the overture “Node” establishes the mystically bombastic nature of Coma Ecliptic through its narrative and propulsive dynamic from sparse piano to explosive Queen/Brian May style chord progressions and soaring guitar style that can be later heard through “Memory Palace” and “Option Oblivion“. Moving forward, the band introduce and reprise multiple themes and motifs; leading singles “The Coma Machine” and “Memory Palace” in particular act as anchors for the ideas that make up the world of Coma Ecliptic, whether it be through foreshadowing important musical details and recurring use of imagery relating to smoke, velvet, and the machinery that keeps the protagonist in his Twilight Zone-esque journey through what he perceives to be his past lives.
The cinematic and otherworldly nature of Coma Ecliptic is furthered by the increased and varied use of pianos and synth keyboards and the practice of avant garde musicianship. In a pre-release interview, frontman Tommy Rogers detailed a newfound and unlikely influence from prolific and award winning composer Danny Elfman that is more than just incidental in practice. Rogers provides gutsy and histrionic vocal performances on a number of tracks, from the villainous narration in “Famine Wolf” to the flamboyant snarling croons of “The Ectopic Stroll.” Never before has Rogers’ touch as a musician in and of himself been so present in a Between the Buried and Me record, with his industrial Thomas Giles style bleeding through tracks like “Rapid Calm” and “Dim Ignition,” the latter of which sounds like a dead-ringer for a Modern Noise B-side.
Naturally, with these traditional progressive rock influences and redefined focus on clean singing and melodic songwriting, Coma Ecliptic is the least technical and aggressive BTBAM record so far. Perhaps there exists a darker timeline (or a past life?) where the band’s tree of influences branched them off as a full-fledged tech death and grind outfit, which the band are no doubt capable of. However, the presently existing iteration of the act have already proven themselves technically proficient enough through their career to afford to instead focus more on The Big Picture and letting the music speak for itself. Long since being perceived a guitar-oriented band (they certainly still are; the guitars rarely sit still while in motion), the group are comfortable having electronically focused movements where guitar is nowhere to be seen, as in the aforementioned “Rapid Calm” and “Dim Ignition.” There’s still plenty of room for sweeps, growls, and blasts in Between the Buried and Me’s repertoire, but they’re slowly growing fewer and farther between. The guitar solos are often absolutely epic (“Option Oblivion“) and informed by jazz fusion (“The Ectopic Stroll“), Bassist Dan Briggs explores the bass guitar’s full potential as a rhythmic and textural force that need not be buried in the mix, and as always, Blake Richardson maintains himself as one of the best drummers in metal.
This all goes back to the question of maturity. Coma Ecliptic does not eschew the various elements that put Between the Buried and Me on the map as a band that will certainly one day be regarded as legends of an entire genre for the sake of some misguided sense of pretentiousness or somehow discounting the metal genre as an adolescent phase. Coma Ecliptic is instead a sincere piece of music that represents the growth and development of five of the best musicians currently active in extreme or progressive music, and is the next logical step in which they find themselves and their voices. Yes, Coma Ecliptic is a dense and complicated record that many longtime fans may find off-putting, but upon repeated listens, it’s clear that immaculate attention to detail has been made across the album’s breadth. Coma Ecliptic is as slow a grower as it is ambitious in scope, but that doesn’t hold it back from earning its place as another opus under the band’s growing belt of celebrated genre staples. Only time will tell where exactly this place will be, but Between the Buried and Me does well for themselves in crafting an album that hopes to carry on in the lineage of classics like Operation Mindcrime, Tommy, and The Wall.