Acquiring the Taste
Between their new album Coma Ecliptic and their previous effort The Parallax II: Future Sequence (sadly, not Electric Boogaloo), North Carolina band Between the Buried and Me have displayed a shift toward the progressive side of their prog-metal identity. One listen to the new LP and the priorities become clear: BTBAM want to melt minds now, not faces. As such, their work must be viewed through a different prism – a set of progressive metrics. Viewed against the greats they strive to stand alongside, BTBAM suffer not from a lack of talent, skill, vision, or ideas, but from a lack of surety in their own best expressions. That is, the band seem to want to include all of their ideas on each release, and in doing so, fail to capitalize on those with the strongest, longest legs. Though they made great strides on Ecliptic in toning down the excess of Parallax II (“Too many notes,” quipped the ghost of Emperor Joseph II at MonarchMedia.com), BTBAM remain considerable writers and performers, but generally poor editors.
Progressive rock has always been about the ratio of brilliant, visionary wheat to indulgent, meaningless chaff. Though some prog bands found ways to write tight, poppy nuggets (Genesis and Rush come to mind), many others swung wildly for the fences, and were forgiven their excesses in consideration of their moments of sublimity. In their early days, BTBAM were able to fudge the proportion by leaning on their heaviness. With their formidable speed and power, their metal sections were room-shaking enough to zero the scale. On Ecliptic however, vocalist Tommy “Thomas Giles” Rogers barely growls. The rest of the band grind or blast or sludge only sporadically, and because of this, the heavy passages have more impact than ever. When the first outburst registers partway through “The Coma Machine,” it is truly invigorating.
But it is mostly the soft and mid-volume parts that BTBAM are presenting for consideration this time around, and they are a mixed bag. Much of the material here sounds unapologetically similar to Thomas Giles’ Modern Noise, with the singer mewling earnestly, sans guile, seductiveness or danger – excepting the rare appearance of his inner Tom Waits, as at the beginning of “The Ectopic Stroll.” There is a good deal of good-natured chaff on the album – vaguely melodic, inoffensive and a little dull. This is a shame, because the wheaty moments are alive with vibrant synchronicity. The late middle section of “Famine Wolf” evolves from a bizarre Blade Runner blues to a west coast guitar reverie, to lounge jazz, to a sinister Latin thing that recalls Miss Machine-era Dillinger Escape Plan. “King Redeem – Queen Serene” oscillates between a rousing section that defies classification and 100m dashes of convincing black metal. “Turn on the Darkness” explodes around the 2:30 mark into a Mediterranean-ish section rich with complex rhythms and exotic intrigue.
These transcendent moments shine brightly, but also briefly. Some of the greatest moments in prog history came about when the musicians in question realized they had something special, and milked it without shame. This is why Pink Floyd’s “Time” ends with a reprise of “Breathe”; why “Close to the Edge” ends with a bigger, brighter, more urgent version of the song’s early section; why “Court of the Crimson King” is essentially a series of variations on the same climactic motif. Fuddy-duddy dad prog is not the only standard. The Mars Volta made plenty of hay by repeating their catchy, sexy vocal hooks to satisfaction. Radiohead are not often classified as progressive, but the way they stretch their genre experiments over sturdy structural frames rarely leaves entranced listeners grasping at fragments.
An unusual but perhaps fitting comparison: The Number Twelve Looks Like You’s Worse Than Alone worked in the same not-always-heavy, lots-of-parts-in-succession, genre-detour-friendly, decentralized-songwriting territory as Coma Ecliptic. Though the vocals were shrill, the songs held together and ultimately conveyed identity and feeling. TNTLLY didn’t necessarily have more or better than ideas than BTBAM. What they did have was better taste in their own work; they understood what to keep, what to cut and what to embellish and extend.
The progression BTBAM have made from the exhausting overload of Parallax II to the approachable cornucopia of Coma Ecliptic represents a refinement in self-taste, but not a truly drastic one. If anything, BTBAM appear to be following the trail blazed by Dream Theater, reaping some of its rewards as well – elite musical prowess, a discography of CDs with long runtimes, hordes of dorky, rabid fans and respect from the music industry and press. But really, Dream Theater are totally uncool, and won their position not with soulful futurism or medieval-classical-jazz nostalgia, but rock ’n’ roll populism (their heyday work sounds like a teched-out mashup of Journey, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses and any other immensely popular thrash or hair metal band that played to a sold-out arena between 1980 and 1990) and relentless maximalism. It would be truly interesting to hear Between the Buried and Me attempt something like progressive elegance. That is, a few long, carefully crafted songs, a tight and effective concept and yes, some repetition of motifs. As it is, BTBAM are doing just fine, but they could be doing so much more – by doing less.