Monday, July 16, 2018

album review: 'automata i & ii' by between the buried and me

So I've made it no secret that I don't tend to be a huge fan of death metal, especially once we get to the more technical, punishing territory, but I've always had one big asterisk in that category and that was Between The Buried And Me. As I've said before, I got into the band in university, and while the wild tonal shifts and overall presentation took a while to grow on me, I still stand up for Colors and Alaska to this day.

And yet a bizarre parallel to Opeth, as Between The Buried And Me shelves more of their heavier side for progressive tendencies, I've tended to like them a lot less, as those shifts seem to have come at the cost of smart mix balance, intensity, and with the addition of synthesizer tones I don't think anybody wanted. And I can't tell you how aggressive irritating that is, because it's clear that Between The Buried And Me is trying to get more experimental and incorporating a richer cross-section of sounds and progressions, but more often than not those sounds wind up not complimenting the compositions nearly as well as they should. And I'll say it: I was probably too nice to their 2015 record Coma Ecliptic when I reviewed it formally, because while it was not a bad record, it was absolutely a measurable step from the band at their best and really has not been anything I've wanted to revisit

And I'll be blunt and say I had big concerns about this project too: a double album, the first half released in early March of this year with the second coming out now, and while I've never liked it when bands pull this release strategy for double albums, it did give me some forewarning that Automata might be a bit of a mess, especially with some of the wilder rumors I had heard about the second half. But hey, maybe Coma Ecliptic was transitional and they'd stick the landing here, right?

So I'll be blunt: I've given this project a solid six to eight listens to really wrap my head around the ideas it's trying to present, followed up with me actually doing my research into the concept that frontman Tommy Rogers was looking to express in the content - no Deafheaven retraction here, I wanted to make sure I got this right. And on some level, I like the ideas that Between The Buried And Me want to explore here... and yet I'm not really a huge fan of what they brought together here in the execution, some of which has carried over from Coma Ecliptic - although I think I like this a bit more - and some of which just feels like a brand of progressive metal experimentation that just doesn't resonate as strongly as I was hoping. 

So let's start with that, shall we? For starters, I strongly recommend you listen to both records here together as one piece, and not split apart, mostly because Automata I doesn't really have a satisfying ending and you really need the second piece to make solid sense of the narrative, already a little jumbled because of a scrambled timeline only revealed if you look into the liner notes. And this is one of those cases where I'm not sure why this is a double album at all - sure, there might be a natural stopping point in the lyrics which I'll discuss more in a bit, but in execution it leaves us with songs that could have easily had fat trimmed to pull this under an hour and probably should have if listening to both disks together. And while Between The Buried And Me has always had a wonky relationship with pacing, the more they double down on pieces comfortably around the eight minute mark split by more abortive interludes leaves me thinking the structure could have used another run on the drawing board. And on that topic, while longtime fans will be familiar with this band's style - off-kilter guitar patterns, shifting time signatures, arpeggiated melodic riffs, wild drumwork, it's hard not to feel like the group is increasingly losing sight of their strengths and heaviness. A big part of this comes in leftover issues from Coma Ecliptic: inconsistent basslines when they don't have to anchor a passage, cymbals slathered over the larger mix, and synth choices that do little to flatter the overall songs. The absolute worst case is on 'House Organ' with all of its programmed fizzy popping and weedy guitars, but in truth the only place where I found the synths worked at all was the bassy, pulsating groove on 'Blot' - yes, they try to make it work on 'The Grid', but the song really would have been better off if it was focusing on those dreamier electric passages instead of low-end synths that neither compliment the bass or add much tempo or texture.

But texture is a key word here - mostly because for the majority of the record, there isn't any. I have no idea why Between The Buried And Me have continued to blast away any low-end thickness or grit with each record, but it started getting aggressively grating when the passages with more texture like the drums and pluckier guitars that actually picks up more crunch on 'Blot' or the chugging main melody of 'The Proverbial Bellow' became the exception rather than the norm. And Tommy Rogers' vocals... look, he's got a solid growl and his clean singing did grow on me a bit when it was given a little more reverb, but on some songs he tries to move into a more nasal cackle like on 'Voice Of Trespass' and 'Yellow Eyes' and it's just jarring when overlaid with the far more convincing dirty vocals. And on the topic of 'Voice Of Trespass'... look, like everyone I was kind of thrown when after an accordion-driven interlude we're thrown into a swing metal number, but Between The Buried And Me has always pivoted into weird experimental directions without warning - what bothered me a lot more is that it basically sounded like a Diablo Swing Orchestra cut from twelve years ago and didn't feel nearly as experimental as it should! We'll come back to this when we talk lyrics, but at least that cut did have some low-end groove and a persistent melody, if not much of a stable hook... which might as well be my biggest criticism of this double album as a whole. If you're going to clean up the production this much to approach Steven Wilson levels, you should bring the chorus hooks to match beyond just interesting melodic passages, otherwise the songs can feel scattered, especially given how long they run. And what's frustrating is that songs like 'Millions' and 'The Grid' and 'Blot' get close to this but never fully stick the landing.

Granted, some of that scattered feeling is likely part of the point, which takes us to the lyrics and themes, which take the concept of an artist becoming trapped in their own dreams projected by a nefarious company for entertainment to the masses - and if you're thinking this can be both self-referential and a little up-its-own-ass, you'd be right, but there is nuance here if you're paying attention. I like how so much of the writing on the first Automata is scattered and dreamlike, always hemmed in by electricity and the feral thoughts that haunt one's subconscious, and I like how 'Millions' steps back to highlight how isolating that larger fame might be, placing the artist in a vulnerable position of self-doubt and loneliness to be exploited. And 'Blot' works as the sharp point of realization of what could be risked by doing this - it becomes clear that the artist is making the choice to expose this and his own myopia - the blot in his eye - makes it clear he's not quite prepared for the dangers what his subconscious could unearth when he goes into the dream. The larger industry doesn't really care that much - 'Voice Of Trespass' highlights their internal hollowness they're desperate to fill, but the craven greed is pretty naked - and incidentally, this is where I find the choice to go to the sweaty, vaudeville-esque swing metal route to be a little too on-the-nose when it comes to music as coding. But the larger truth is that the artist was just searching for companionship, and once he's conscious of the dream's projection, there's almost an uneasy truce forged on the 'The Grid'. And despite how unbelievably meta it feels - with the dreams manufactured for wider immersion another on-the-nose metaphor for music and art and can you tell that Tommy Rogers primarily wrote this while on tour - I do like that the artist realizes his feedback loop with the millions looking on can provide a strange vestige of peace and contentment and he needs some structure to get it out to the masses - to quote, 'judge not what we do, judge what we feed', as every part needs the other, and after all, we're all in this together.

But as a whole... look, for me Between The Buried And Me are settling into a niche and sound in progressive metal that's just not my thing consistently, and a pretty far step away from records like Alaska and Colors I liked a lot more. That said, there's still a thematic consistency I like and I can't deny the group can play like hell and churn out catchy as hell melodies pretty damn consistently. But on the other hand, if there's a record where the group really needs to take a step back and reconsider how they structure an album, it's this one, so with all of that... eh, extremely light 7/10, really just for a different set of fans than me at this point. Check it out if you're up for an odd listen, but Between The Buried And Me might want to get out of their own heads a bit for the next project - metatext can only carry you so long.

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