Monday, July 13, 2015

album review: 'coma ecliptic' by between the buried and me

Oh, I bet there's a whole slew of you that are surprised I'm covering this. 

See, I'll admit that I don't cover a ton of metal outside of a few specific genres, most notably towards the progressive or symphonic side. So my choice to talk about a group that has crossed plenty of genres but probably falls closest to technical death metal probably raises a few eyebrows.

Well, funny story: I got into Between The Buried And Me in university, basically on a couple suggestions that I should check out Alaska and Colors because they were genre-bending masterpieces. But unlike an act like Cynic or Devin Townsend where I immediately found a lot to like, Between The Buried And Me took a fair bit longer to really gel with me - mostly because they're a complicated band known for dramatic switch-ups midsong in tone, tempo, or even genre that could be jarring as hell. I could appreciate the killer musicianship and some underrated and clever songwriting, but finding cohesive songs was a little trickier, especially on their first two releases. But once they had a stable line-up, solidified their sound, and worked out a more cohesive flow, they had the one-two punch of Alaska and Colors. And while I liked Alaska, I goddamn loved Colors - a phenomenally cohesive, strikingly memorable, and powerfully evocative record that grows on me with every listen.

But after those two... well, I did like The Great Misdirect, but I was also getting the impression that the genre-crossing was starting to come at the steep price of cohesion, especially when the writing couldn't always bridge the gap. The album had only six songs, but several went over ten minutes and had enough ideas for a good four tracks apiece. There was a little more focus on the The Parallax records, an EP and full-length released in 2011 and 2012, but the more I listened through them, the more I saw the cohesion just not there as much as it was at their best, and the integration of more keyboards and more electronic segments in their production oddly didn't help. But hey, they were on a new label at this point, maybe their newest album, another concept record, might be able to recapture that old magic. So I checked out Coma Ecliptic: did it pay off?

Well, I sure as hell wasn't expecting this. In perhaps one of the band's most jarring shifts to date, Between The Buried And Me sliced away so much of their death metal albums that I'd probably be inclined to call this a straight progressive metal record with dirty vocals. Not since Opeth dropped Heritage that I've seen a transition like this - and disconcertingly, I'm not sure it was a great idea. And this coming from someone who listens to far more progressive metal than technical death metal! And yet, even though it's probably Between The Buried And Me's most accessible album of their career, it feels like something's missing that keeps it from being one of their best.

So let me start by saying that on a fundamental level, the compositional elements of Between The Buried And Me are consistent - complicated melodic progressions that rarely fit into any conventional definition of hook, excellent musicianship in stringing together excellent progressions, and abrupt genre-bending transitions between tempos and time signatures within songs. And in principle, the shift to more outright progressive material isn't a bad idea - the smoother, lighter guitar tones would probably lead to greater cohesion, and I've always liked their melodic composition. And sure enough, we get some strikingly beautiful moments on this record: whenever we get a melodic guitar solo, like on 'Turn On The Darkness', it sounds outright fantastic, and the melodic accents supplementing every groove really are potent. From the Queen-esque contrast between the staccato riffs and piano on 'The Coma Machine' to that nasty guitar tone on 'Famine Wolf' and that excellent piano/guitar segment on the last third of 'The Ectopic Stroll', the great melodic groove that drives 'Memory Palace' to the most thick and potent roil on the piano-accented closer 'Life In Velvet'. And the drumming is goddamn excellent across the board, with Blake Richardson bringing a progressive intensity that might not have the same low-end punch as previous record, but for the most part it works here. And sure enough, the transitions are as smooth as they've ever been.

But here's where we run into our first big shift in production, and that's the shift between melody and groove. Now, normally I'd have no problem with an increased melodic focus, and a band like Between The Buried And Me are innovative enough in their compositions that I'll seldom complain here. But in the choice to go for lighter tones, the thicker grooves are significantly softened, usually left as staccato punctuation and accents. And unfortunately that means the basslines are a lot less interesting or prominent, instead placing much more focus on synthesizers and keyboards or outright electronic beats like the electronic interlude 'Dim Ignition' that really should be a lot better than it is. This is arguably where I have my first big issue, in that many of these songs feel top-heavy, overloaded in the upper and mid-range but lacking in the low-end in terms of groove, and when we do get it, the rhythm guitars and bass have nowhere near the texture and punch. And for as many of these songs remind me of Porcupine Tree in the choice of guitar tones and acoustic elements to emphasize that clean, misty melancholy atmosphere, it feels lacking in foundation. And if the synth tones were better, I'd probably be able to overlook more of this... but between 'Dim Ignition', the blubbery haze of tones over Paul Waggoner's vocals on 'Turn On The Darkness' that are piled on even thicker on 'Rapid Calm', I'm left wishing that they could be as defined or potent as the Guilt Machine or Ayreon tracks from which the best ones are inspired, like on 'Memory Palace' or the accent moments on the chorus of 'Turn On The Darkness'. Hell, while I liked the vaudeville-esque bounce of 'The Ectopic Stroll', I can't help but remember that Diablo Swing Orchestra did this a lot better and actually gave their rhythm guitar some crunch.

And on that note, we need to talk about Tommy Rogers' vocals - arguably the most frustrating part of this album. The biggest problem for me is a complete lack of consistency - his growling and dirty vocals are fine, even if they do feel a little awkward against this production, but the rest of the time he splits between imitating Steven Wilson or Mike Patton from Faith No More. And while he's passable at the former, he stumbles hard in the latter case, mostly because he doesn't have the richer timbre in his lower range to really kill these moments, complete with electronic or fuzzy vocal filters trying to add an edge and instead only adding clutter. But the larger issue is that there are quite a few songs where Rogers tries to go for a stickier chorus, and the increasingly heavy multi-tracking only emphasizes how painfully out of his depth he is. 

And this takes us to the lyrics... and sure, might as well deal with this right out of the gate, if we're looking at records exploring memories and making the choice between life and death in a coma state, this isn't Ayreon's The Human Equation and it can't hope to rise to that level. But then again, the themes this album takes are far bleaker, closer to The Devin Townsend Project's last record, Z²: Sky Blue in terms of its acceptance of death and the hope that something might be lurking in that great beyond. Of course, the underlying motives behind those themes are significantly different - when our unnamed protagonist revisits his memories and life, he finds savage animal spirits, empty religion, unchecked nihilism, and a sense of frustration that culminates in 'The Ectopic Stroll', where going back again and again only reveals the futility of life itself. And while one last try is made to go back on 'Rapid Calm' and 'Memory Palace', they're an exercise in futility, and death comes as a final relief. Now if you're familiar with Between The Buried And Me's discography, the motives behind these themes are nothing new - they've written about this before, and frequently - and that might be why I feel a little cold on the lyrics of this record. Sure, they're vibrant and descriptive - the line of 'stubborn computer savior' on 'King Redeem/Queen Serene' is just fantastic for describing an imagined deus ex machina - but as I've said before, sheer nihilism without a greater purpose doesn't often hold my interest. And in this case, I can't help but feel the album's arc lacks dramatic power - death is treated as a relief or great curiosity from the very first track, and its acceptance in the end has finality, but feels inevitable upon every relisten.

So where do I fall with Coma Ecliptic? Here's the funny thing - like with every Between The Buried And Me record, I find more little things to like with each listen, little subtleties in composition and guitarwork that are goddamn amazing - but I also find more that frustrates me here. For a concept record, I get a thudding sense of anticlimax, the progressive shift is interesting but lacks the thicker melodic grooves, and for as much as Tommy Rogers tries, he's overshadowed by his influences. Not a bad record by any stretch, which is why it's getting a light 7/10, but it's not the band's best by a considerable margin. If you're a fan of progressive metal and are looking for a challenging record, you'll find a lot to like with this, but if you miss the death metal elements or a sharper edge, you're going to be left underwhelmed, and I'm not sure this album rises above that loss.

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