Review Summary: Anybody sampling bits and pieces of Colors will find it excellent, but taken as a whole it is bogged down, not by excess or bad music, but by the sheer volume of complex material one is pressured to accept as genius by the band's fanbase.
Many have spoken, with alternating praise or contempt, of the mind-boggling insanity that is Colors by Between the Buried and Me. The terms chaotic, unbelievable, indescribable, evil, monumental and ferocious have been used in both a complimentary and a critical sense. The vast number of influences and sections, as well as the “eight tracks, one song” theory have also been discussed in both a positive and a negative light. Indeed, all of these concepts do in fact apply to the record, and occasionally they are good and occasionally they are bad in their execution. The question is, which is which? Read on.
I don’t think anybody would argue BTBAM’s technical prowess. From the drumming to the bass to the guitars to the piano to the vocals to anything else they might have thrown in there, everything is not only played with a high degree of proficiency, but is always mindful of what is going on around it. Unlike some other progressive outfits (like The Mars Volta, who just go for complete chaos and hope some sense is eventually sifted out of it by fat teenagers who worship the Gospel of Bixler-Zavala, or Tool, who apart from the drums is unfortunately minimalist in all but the time signature department), BTBAM knows when to rock out and when to rein it to allow other members their say. The bass, as usual, is not easy to hear, but even if all that’s going on is playing in tandem with the guitar (not likely) he still does a fairly impressive job.
When nobody is pulling off a crazy fill or lead, the riffs and simpler parts are always interesting and even catchy. More to the point they are tasteful and are almost never bogged down by melodrama. For those who have come to associate prog rock with the bombastic technical masturbation of Dream Theater or System of a Down’s mad-scientist lunacy, allow me to present Colors. The band is like a slightly more campy version of Opeth, in that they employs dizzying stylistic changes but rarely rely on the shock value of them.
The best part is the fluidity with which the band transitions from section to section. It takes a quick thinker to go from mind-numbing double bass attack to a jazzy beat in a completely different time signature, but the drummer pulls it off time and time again. Obviously this benefits from the studio treatment, but to present such transitions so regularly and have them all make perfect sense and easy on the ear is impressive. Some bands like Mr. Bungle are happy to include jarring transitions and present them as comical or musically effective, but to make something that sounds natural is BTBAM’s strong suit, and they excel at it. There are only several moments in which the transitions don’t work, and that is when the band goes into something so outlandish than it would never sound natural in context (in particular the country hootenanny interlude near the middle of the album).
That brings me to the main problem of this album, which is that it is just so exhausting to listen to in its entirety (as its fans insist it should be). The band tries to alleviate this with soft-heavy dynamics and ridiculous moments such as the polka and country sections, but it simply doesn’t work. Never is anything from before built off of; instead, more and more parts and suites are heaped on top of each other in an alarming way, much like a desk being loaded with paperwork. Any given minute of this album is brilliant when taken out of context from the crushing weight that precedes and is sure to follow it. The band’s maturity and technicality is virtually thrown out the window when it comes to their songwriting approach, because on this record they simply don’t have one. It’s as if the writing process for the album consisted of the band working together to produce several hundred riffs, solos and ideas, but with so little common ground between any of them they applied their seamless transitory touch and decided to call all of these ideas one song. This was a terrible, terrible concept. The album is simply sagging under the weight of all the genius moments it is composed of, and as a result Colors is somehow less than the sum of its parts.
A more song-based approach would have made this album a classic. Some may call for judicious excision of the more absurd moments on Colors, but really all that would be necessary is to make the existing content more digestible. Glimmers of this concept are visible in “Foam Born: The Backtrack” and “Informal Gluttony,” and as a result these tracks stick out simply because they’re divided from the others by more than just a changing number on your CD player. This way, the bizarre parts could be changed into short little filler sections and everything else could be condensed into a more listenable form.
It kills me to say this, but Colors is an album that is literally ruined by its execution. As I said, any given minute (or two or five) of this album is wonderful and impressive. However, despite the band being a technical workhorse, their laziness in not bothering to make their good ideas listenable shows not only hubris, but contempt for their audience. Some may be willing and able to digest brilliance in this form, but it was too frustrating for me to sit still for an hour while section after section rained down on me with neither reference nor consideration to what came next. Oh sure, all the sections were put in an acceptable order, but trying to keep track of everything that came before and will come after is simply not a workable idea for a band that does its damnedest to make every moment different from the one before.
Listening to this album is essentially the same as having your friend burn you a 3-hour playlist of songs you love, only to have them chopped into random sections and construct one massive song out of one section of each song with no pauses. The band tries its best with the limitations they built for themselves, but Colors fails in that regard. This album is truly great, but if you want to get the full blast of it, you’ll have to change your typical approach to listening to an album or risk getting a bad first impression. To progress from a technical and emotional standpoint and yet fail so profoundly on a songwriting level is the dubious honor that Colors holds, and hopefully BTBAM will revert to a more typical method on any subsequent releases that are hopefully in the band’s future.